James Blake lives up to the hype at Central Presbyterian show

Categories: SXSW
jamesblakechurch.jpg
Photo by Andrea Swensson
James Blake is easily one of the most buzzed-about artists at this year's SXSW festival, so I jumped at the chance to head over to the Central Presbyterian Church for a 1 a.m. performance by the rising artist. I'm a fan of Blake's album and my expectations for the show were running ridiculously high (I can't even count how many times I exclaimed "It's James Blake! In a church!" leading up to the show), and luckily the set was nearly everything I had hoped it would be.

Before I go on about the show, a related tangent: Seeing that James Blake will probably get more press this week than he has thus far in his short career, can we seize the opportunity to put to rest once and for all this ill-fitting trend of calling him a dubstep artist? Because his music is just so... not dubstep. At all. If anything, Blake's performance reminded me of seeing Justin Vernon perform with Bon Iver, especially his subtle use of a vocoder on some of the songs. And yes, he employs beats both recorded and via a live drummer that fall in and out of time and toy with the sense of overall rhythm, but a breakbeat here and there does not a dubstep song make.

As I was sitting in the church listening to all of this beautiful, soulful not-dubstep, I couldn't help but think back to the panel discussion that I saw yesterday between Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Ahmed Gallab of Yeasayer, Jarrett Dougherty of Screaming Females, and Mookie Singerman of Genghis Tron. The panelists were revisiting the book Our Band Could Be Your Life and talking about the rapidly evolving concept of "indie" music, and something Garbus said really stuck with me. She was talking about being wary of relying on the things we read on the internet to guide us in our musical explorations rather than delving into the art being created in our own communities in real life, and she made a comment about how when you read something on the internet it legitimizes it for you, excusing you from forming your own opinion on the matter. Pitchfork says it, so it must be true. Flash forward to last night and there we were at the official Pitchfork showcase, watching newly christened darling James Blake play his not-dubstep music for a whole sea of indie kids who are thinking they might need to check out more of this whole dubstep thing.

Long story short, what I'm trying to say is that you don't have to believe everything you read on the blogs, and that James Blake does not make dubstep music.

ANYWAY.

The performance was really beautiful, and the stoic nature of the church commanded a certain solemnity (and, thankfully, silence) from the at-capacity crowd. My only complaint toward the beginning of the show is that I wanted it to be much louder, and was wondering if the church simply wasn't set up to accommodate a wall-shaking show. But once Blake and his two backing musicians adjusted to their surroundings a bit they cranked the bass up several notches, letting it rattle on "I Never Learnt to Share" and boom triumphantly during the set's closing song and highlight, "Fallin."

Serious and reserved, Blake did little to address the crowd during his performance. "Thanks for coming, queuing, and whatever it takes to get into one of these venues," he said shyly, a sentiment that was surely appreciated by those in the crowd who waited an hour or more in line to get into the venue. 

Of the "buzz bands" I've seen so far at this year's SXSW, Blake is by far the one that has best lived up to his hype. Now let's say we just skip the part where we do the whole James Blake hype backlash thing and go straight to the part where we accept him for the promising breakout artist that he is, shall we? He deserves it.



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