We Love Music: James Blake @ Rock and Roll Hotel, 5/8/11

Courtesy of James Blake

If you want some idea of what James Blake’s show sounded like on Sunday night at the Rock and Roll Hotel, do yourself a favor and listen to this broadcast of his SXSW set while you read.

I was beyond excited to get a chance to see Blake on his first US tour, at a venue as tiny as the Rock and Roll Hotel, at a show that sold out within minutes. He’s one of the rare artists who pushes the boundaries of popular music, creating something familiar but unclassifiable. (I’ll refrain from using the phrase “post-dubstep” in this review.) Blake is preceded by groups like How To Dress Well and The XX, who create dark, atmospheric, slow pop songs that use sparse instrumentation. This emptiness gives the songs enough breathing room that you can fill in the space yourself. After making a name for himself by producing dubstep, a dark, bass-heavy style of dance music from England, Blake mixed in his soul-singer-like vocals to craft his debut album last year.

As a singer/songwriter/producer, James Blake’s set could’ve gone in several different directions. I was wondering if he would stick to solo piano pieces. Or maybe he would eschew his voice in favor of playing straight, rhythm-focused dubstep tracks from his early days. We ended up getting a good mix of songs off his debut and electronic explorations old and new. Oh, and it was one of the best-sounding shows I’ve witnessed at the Rock and Roll Hotel.

James Blake arrived on stage with two other band members – a drummer, and a guitarist/keyboardist. He sat down, surrounded by two keyboards and a mic. Blake started his set the same way he started his SXSW set, with “Unluck” – sad organs, haunted vocals, and drums that drag a bit, just a little slower than you expect. Blake shyly crooned into the mic, never letting a note last longer than it had to. When he plays it live, the song sounds even more soulful, less clinical. The drums have a more organic vibe to them, even though the drummer is mostly hitting pads to trigger electronic sounds.

Blake used various effects on his voice throughout the set, including mountains of reverb, vocoders, and autotune. I hesitate to even call it “autotune”, as it’s so far removed from the style made popular by T-Pain and abused by everyone else in pop music. Blake uses autotune to purposefully distort his voice, making it sound like a long-lost transmission – digital like a thumb drive, distorted like an old cassette tape. Yet Blake’s soulful voice, pitch-perfect and full of vibrato, still shine through the effects.

The track “I Never Learnt To Share” showcased his talent as a performer, starting with him recording the opening line “my brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them” on a tape loop. He then proceeded to harmonize with himself, recording THAT to the loop as well, until he could sit back and play keys as three James Blakes sang for him. Any mistakes you make on the tape get repeated endlessly, so there’s no room for error. I’ve seen a couple artists like Imogen Heap and Victor Wooten do this before, and I love it each time.

These days, I consider it rare when a musician is recognized for their raw musical talent; in the world of indie rock and mainstream pop, groups are more likely to be recognized for their songwriting abilities, or for creating a new style or sound. Various interviewers bring up his jazz background, or how he was classically trained – why is this such a rare thing? Perhaps because of this, his show felt like a recital. And, in case it’s not clear by now – James Blake is a musical prodigy. At age 21, he’s already proven his talent as a songwriter, producer, and performer. It was a joy to watch him work, completely engrossed in his own performance. He’s clearly a perfectionist – you could feel his frustration when one of his keyboards malfunctioned during his encore. He came across as humble, and unsure of how to deal with his new-found fame.

Maybe as a result of Blake’s obsessiveness, this was one of the best-sounding shows at the Rock and Roll Hotel that I’ve been to. The drums sounded precise throughout; the extreme reverb on certain parts made it sound like the drums were played in a giant abandoned warehouse. The bass was loud enough to vibrate your clothes during tracks like “Limit To Your Love”. Also, I’ve been to plenty of shows with chatty audiences; this would’ve killed Blake’s music, which is quite dynamic and involves many quiet or silent sections. Luckily, the audience was respectful (or in awe, like me) throughout the night.

I’m sure next time he comes through, he’ll be playing bigger venues such as the 9:30 Club. I can’t wait to see where he takes his music next.

Blake Setlist

Martin Silbiger

Martin moved from Atlanta to DC in 2007. He works as a software developer for Soundexchange, a non-profit royalty administration organization. A self-proclaimed metal snob, Martin loves bands that push into unexplored territory. He also writes about pop culture here.

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