James Blake at First Avenue, 5/1/13
James Blake With FaltyDL First Avenue, Minneapolis May 1, 2013
From the moment James Blake tentatively burst onto the music scene in 2010, his inventive music has boldly defied definition or classification. Blake's proven to be too orchestral and delicate to be considered straight dubstep, while too ornate and textured to be thought of as merely pop. And all of those intoxicating facets of his dynamic sound were on full display at a sold-out First Avenue on Wednesday night, as James and his tight, two-person backing band enthralled us all throughout their 85-minute performance, which highlighted Blake's earliest work as well as the direction he is planning on taking his music in the future.
The spartan stage featured a series of Edison bulbs set before a row of plain white circles, which would augment the subtle lighting throughout the show, serving more as an enhancement of the sound and never a distraction. Blake unassumingly took to the stage, waving and asking us straight away, "Hi, how are you doing?" James was joined by drummer Ben Assister and guitarist/keyboardist/sampler Rob McAndrews, and as he settled in behind his keyboard, he began leading the band through an exploratory version of the first song he ever released, "Air & Lack Thereof," which started out with a smooth, reggae-like beat before building to a grand, bass and beat-driven release that washed luxuriously over the crowd.
The loud ovation after the opening track came to a close would imaginatively be used by the band as an additional sonic layer during a tender and soaring version of "I Never Learnt To Share," with Blake's spare vocals and keyboard strains mixing fluidly with the looped cheers of the full house as the song built dramatically. The lone spotlight shone squarely on Blake at the start of the track, before the stage was bathed in a soothing orange light as the beats and loops fully kicked in and the song swelled majestically.
Blake then took a moment to address the crowd warmly, "Thank you very much. It's really, really nice to be back, especially to this particular venue. Thank you so much for coming out and supporting us. We've got some old stuff and some new stuff for you tonight. This is another old one." And with that, he led the band through a reworked, keys-driven rendition of "Unluck," that was soulful and rich. The first new song of the night, "To The Last," was a touching, poignant love song, with Blake's soothing vocals sounding strongly reminiscent of Antony Hegarty.
This began the first of a few lulls that took place during the set, but Blake has truly mastered the art of measured restraint within his live show. And, just like any orchestral suite or concerto has some lows to make the highs that much more inspiring and effective, as did this performance, with "To The Last" flowing fluidly into the hushed, effects-laden "Lindisfarne I," which gradually built to the muted but moving release provided at the end of "Lindisfarne II." But the audience had to be patient in order to arrive at the regal payoff that unfolded impressively as Blake and the band kicked in the staccato rhythms and beats of "CMYK," with the song blooming massively over the crowd, ending in a flurry of samba-like percussion.
"All right, this is another song from the new album," Blake announced, before leading the band through a touching, somber version of "Our Love Comes Back," bringing the momentum of the show back down again, while still managing to be captivating nonetheless. But things picked up quick as soon as the tribal rhythms of "Digital Lion" kicked in, after the hymn-like intro to the track gradually gave way to the building pulse contained in the restless melodies.
Blake then took a moment to appreciatively introduce his band, claiming "If it wasn't for these guys, I probably would have packed this all up and gone home by now." Their powerful cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love" quickly followed, with the rumbling bass and invigorating keyboard strains ringing pristinely throughout the club, alighting the later end of the set.
The choppy, textured beats of "Klavierwerke" continued the experimental symphonic excursions that Blake seems to be working through with his current live shows, brazenly managing to make something spare and subtle sound grandiose. Again, Blake has moved beyond mere pop music -- there is something far more deep and meaningful going on within his songs. And even if the delicately restrained numbers prove challenging and may even test your patience at times, the process becomes that much more rewarding when the songs gradually take flight and eventually sweep you away.
The main set closed with a stunning trio of songs from Overgrown, beginning with a gospel-like reworking of the title track, which was simply devastating and heartbreaking. Blake then alluded to the new direction he's planning on taking his sound, claiming that he's going to start releasing "dance music" in the future. He gave us a taste of what to expect with a funky, churning version of "Voyeur," which indeed had the dynamic electronic pulse of an after-hour London nightclub, and got those who had enough room to dance within the packed club moving a bit.
After another warm word of thanks to the crowd for their continued support, the main set ended with Blake's towering new single, "Retrograde," with the roars of the crowd again being worked into the sonic fabric of the song. While the mix for the track could have been turned up even louder, the striking song still managed to soar, with the booming bass washing elegantly over the crowd, who saw Blake and the band off with a well-earned ovation that didn't let up until they returned for the encore.
"It was truly a pleasure to be back here," Blake said affectionately as he settled back in behind his keyboard at the start of the encore. James then eased his way into a majestic, impassioned version of "The Wilhelm Scream" that, even with all of the stunning highlights from earlier in the set, still managed to steal the show. And, as if things couldn't get any more poignant and emotional, the band left Blake alone for a solo take on Joni Mitchell's "A Case Of You," with just James' dulcet vocals and his delicate keyboard strains managing to silence and stun the full house. With a wave and a quick bow, Blake was off, leaving us all lingering for as long as we could in this blissful sonic world he crafted for us.
Personal Bias: I've been under James Blake's intoxicating spell since the moment that I heard "CMYK."
The Crowd: A diverse mix of stoners, hip-hop fans, indie kids and scene veterans--proving the across the board appeal that Blake's music has.
Overheard In The Crowd: "It's like reefer madness in here!"
Random Notebook Dump: I'm still kicking myself for missing Blake's celebrated Entry show back in May of 2011, but I had my gall bladder removed the day prior to the show. I wisely skipped the gig in order to recover, as all that bass would have done some serious damage to my internal organs.
Air & Lack Thereof
I Never Learnt To Share
To The Last
Our Love Comes Back
Limit To Your Love (Feist)
The Wilhelm Scream (Encore)
A Case Of You (Joni Mitchell) (Encore)
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