There is pleasure in living life with a certain degree of spontaneity. Broke and exhausted from a full day of travel the day before, I happened to get a last minute text from a friend who had an extra James Blake ticket. I knew what to expect after seeing him in March at SXSW -- people were literally climbing trees at the brilliant outdoor venue French Legation to catch a fleeting glimpse or score a picture of James Blake, the young and shockingly handsome British electronic music producer. I remember thinking simultaneously, who cares what he looks like -- what are these incredible sounds?
The reason I responded so promptly with an emphatic “Yes!” had nothing to do with visual entertainment. James Blake live is, fittingly and quite irrelevantly, boring if you are looking for stage theatrics. There is, in fact, very little stage movement at all and yet, his live sets more than make up for this with some serious sonic candy -- for me, the equivalent of feeding my ears maple-bacon doughnuts by the dozen.
The largely male crowd shushed each other whenever there happened to be conversation during the music. This is exactly what James Blake was like live -- not quiet per se, but hushed, soulful, minimal and, at its core, tantalizingly beautiful. The spatial expansiveness and unhurriedness of James Blake’s songs are as much a part of the music as the music itself. Gorgeous solo piano pieces like “Give Me My Month” and a new song performed as an encore were certain highlights.
To my delight, less use of auto-tune is used in Blake’s live sets compared to album cuts, simply making more obvious the fact that he is much more than just a run-of-the-mill electronic artist with savvy computer skills and an ear for smooth beats. His vocals were a constant force, moving, conjuring up emotion and introspective thoughts forgotten.
For me, the epitome of the set was “Lindesfarne I” and “II” -- a pair of mid-album tracks and yes, hypocritically, the former track one of the most heavily auto-tuned on the new album, done well a la Bon Iver or even some of the better Imogen Heap tracks from back when. “Lindisfarne II” seemed to stop time, holding the audience in utter silence and captivity while gluey push-and-pull rhythms with accentuated off-beats provided the backdrop for his heart-melting vocals. And yet, the chills and isolation, loneliness, the color blue, that I felt during “Lindesfarne II,” all this in the middle of a crowd of people, seemed to be the effect that James Blake desires on his audience -- to move someone through music, uncomfortable or not. This he certainly did, himself seeming a tinge melancholy as the music he creates often is.