Better Than: Homemade tea and crumpets from the mop-topped dreamboat himself.
It’s been about six months since the last time James Blake played Terminal 5, and the venue — and the at-capacity crowd that filled it — welcomed the British singer and electronic producer back with open arms. Still working April’s Retrograde for all it’s worth, Blake dove into a 90-minute set that embraced both the songs of his latest as well as the lesser-known reaches from the first entries in his back catalogue, with rave-ready dance parties erupting in between heartfelt serenades. The show back in May was scheduled explicitly to celebrate Retrograde, and that performance banked on the new stuff, especially, with the title track and single echoing long after Blake left the venue. It’s great to see Blake shake things up, lose himself in his own beat drops and add variability to an already stunning mix that provides a deeper look at the lyrics and lines we can’t get enough of while throwing us off course with escapist ecstasy in a way we never saw coming.
Blake’s got this modern Phantom of the Opera vibe going on, minus that whole horrible disfigurement/insanely reclusive behavior thing. When he first sat down at the keyboard with nothing but a backlight illuminating him, the drama and intensity with which he did so invoked the image of the Phantom taking to the organ, easing his body into the pedals and keys until he and the instrument were one as a conduit for his music.
See Also: James Blake Comes Alive at Terminal 5
One can’t help but think of Blake in a more classical setting — maybe Carnegie Hall or the Royal Albert in London — would offer a breathtaking contrast and draw attention to the fact that he seamlessly weds flawless musicality with an innovative electronic edge in a way that defies expectations dictated by genre. The visual cues taken from the minimalist lighting and stage set-up make it very easy to focus on Blake and match this particular kind of intensity as he covers Joni Mitchell (with a painfully endearing cover of “A Case of You”) and loops his falsetto into oblivion. The euphoric moments — the ones that sprung from the uncharacteristically sprightly breakdowns, namely during “CMYK” and for various breaks in between more solemn strains — had the floor moving as one cohesive, hand-raising mass that spent as much time in the air as it did on the ground. A group of people spent the entirety of the show dancing interpretively in a group by the bar, treating “Take A Fall For Me” and “Life Round Here” no differently than a modern dance recital would. Whether nodding heads collectively in the crowd or breaking away to dance with a wall, Blake fans lapped up every note and spent the set actually listening, with fewer iPhones hoisted than you normally see at a show.
Blake, as usual, was a charming (if not charmingly self-deprecating) host, one who turned his mistakes into notes as likeable as the choruses to his bigger hits. The biggest flub came not with the water bottle that an asshole threw at him two songs in but during “Retrograde,” when a looping malfunction prompted a second go at the song. Instead of getting flustered, Blake laughed it off: “If you can’t get the loop right, just sing it yourself!”
Cheers to a dude who can pull off a raw, emotional display that cuts to the core of uncomfortable feelings for an hour and a half, especially when he can crack a joke at his own expense in the home stretch. It was close to perfect, and hopefully we’ll see something new from Blake to obsess over before he returns to New York City. (And hopefully, next time, we’ll get to catch him at a classical venue, because that’d blow minds all over the damn place.)
Critical Bias: There’s very little about Blake to dislike. The vocal talent and technique, sans AutoTune and effects, is there. The commanding presence? Present. The ability to fill a venue he described as a “cavernous hole” with a volley of deafening, devastating blows to the ears and heartstrings? Yup. Got it. Blake’s on his A Game, and his worst — like the barely offensive “Retrograde” trip-up — is still infinitely better than a lot of bests.
Overheard: “I’m in such a daze that I can’t remember if I’ve done the last verse or not.” This was Blake, halfway through his adored cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Thankfully, the room was right there with him.
Random Notebook Dump: Pepper spray SUCKS, as the crowd walking into T5 last night figured out pretty quickly. There was a quick panic at the ID check line when a waft of pepper spray made its way to the front of the line, and suddenly everyone started coughing like maniacs and covering their eyes. Hopefully, the pepper spray was discharged accidentally and the person who did so is OK, but that was a bit of a heart-stopping moment before the show even started.