James Blake at First Avenue, 5/1/13
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.