James Blake and his band walked briskly out onto stage. Taking his place behind his keyboard and laptop, he led his trio in a chaotic, explosive rendition of one of his first singles, 2009’s “Air and Lack Thereof.” Swirling blue and green lights swallowed up the band. The skuzzed out bass swallowed up the crowd. Next, he’d slow things down with one of the quiet, insightful singles from his self-titled debut album, “I Never Learnt to Share.” He sported a black jacket with a black t-shirt and stood at his keyboard. Immediately following that, the band jumped back into the beat-driven world with “CMYK,” the booming house single that first helped the British musician catch buzz in the United States only a few years ago. Three bat signal-like lights watched from behind the stage, shifting and changing with each pulse. And after that? Well, he busted out “Limit To Your Love,” another reflective, soft single from his debut record.
In other words, James Blake’s show is unpredictable.
Last night’s sold-out, all-ages show at Terminal 5 featured a musician who knows exactly what he’s doing, but a crowd that didn’t really know how to respond. The average music fan might only be familiar with Blake’s self-titled debut record, and his most recent Overgrown. Both albums aren’t necessarily what you’d put on at a dance party, but are rather made for those moments when you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, sitting on your couch, unable to sleep, staring at a lit candle or playing video games. However, Blake’s earlier work–and what got him to the point of being able to produce some of that introspective music–couldn’t be more opposite. His first EPs are all built upon haunting, Burial-like beats, the type of stuff that might remind you of that scene in The Matrix where Neo meets Trinity for the first time. Lots of thumping, but in a lifeless, robotic sort of way.
It speaks to Blake’s incredible talent as a musician to be able to transition back and forth between these drastic poles, and walk the line in-between. Some of last night’s best moments came during such moments, like on “Retrograde” and “Overgrown,” two singles from his latest album that both operate in this world. “Suddenly I’m hit,” he sang in his soaring falsetto, above a crescendoing, buzzing whirr. “Is this darkness of the dawn? And your friends are gone.” Another great moment came at the end, when Blake covered Joni Mitchell’s classic love song “A Case of You” to close out the night. Draped in a blue light, his fingers fluttered on the keyboard. “You’re my holy wine, you taste so bitter and so sweet,” he crooned. “I could drink a case of you, darling, and I’d still be on my feet.”
Despite Blake’s quality musicianship, some moments of the show did feel, well, boring. Maybe it was the emptiness that the hanger-like space of Terminal 5–even when it’s sold out–makes you feel. Maybe it was the crowd’s inability to determine whether or not they enjoyed the show. Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t have a date to put my arm around during “A Case of You.” The drastic differences were all just a little bit confusing at times, like there was a lack of focus, or that if you expected a certain type of James Blake, you may have gotten another, and vice versa.
Critical Bias: James Blake’s debut record really hit me hard, and soundtracked a good portion of my life when I was “going through some stuff.”
Random Notebook Dump: Blake wished everyone “safe travels” after he finished. He’s so British.
Overheard: “I just saw Four Tet.”
Air & Lack Thereof
I Never Learnt To Share
To The Last
I am Sold
Limit To Your Love
Our Love Comes Back
The Wilhelm Scream
A Case of You (Joni Mitchell Cover)