Through a series of EPs a young British producer by the name of James Blake forged an evolving new sound in 2010 – blending R&B samples, quick-click dubstep rhythms, cavernous bass lines and Auto-Tuned choruses. Named checked by the likes of Burial, Giles Peterson, Jamie xx, Mount Kimbie, Joy Orbison and Ramadanman, Blake was an artist’s artist. Less than a year ago he played a reportedly unremarkable DJ set in Dublin’s Twister Pepper to a few dozen chin-stroking dubstep purists, leaving the reverence of his performance and production skills to debate on the message-boards and forums these same pasty creatures occupy. In short, James Blake was as nerdy as a HTML t-shirt.
However, there was a seismic shift in the aftershock of an earth-shattering Feist cover, propelling Blake to the top of everyone’s 2011 list – even making the pages of glossy fashion magazines alongside “Jennifer Anniston’s Night of Hell” (presumably when she discovered that Branjelina adopted a new Border Collie and named it Rachel). With that Blake’s eponymous debut LP was somehow burdened with both critical and commercial expectation long before its release. Thankfully, from the epicentre of its own hyperbole, the record floored critics across the board and found its way onto everyone’s iPod or playlist and, more shockingly, daytime radio.
With barely a month’s notice, Blake announced a live show in Whelan’s, Dublin which promptly sold out in 20 minutes. You can be sure as eggs the promoters tried to shift it next door to a larger venue (The Village) but smartly Blake stuck to the more intimate setting. This intimacy meant the audience could see the intricacies of Blake’s performance and could feel the music – every rib rattling note of it.
Seeing Blake’s honest use of Auto-Tune and effects pedals is exhilarating. Far from hiding or disguising his voice he uses technology to bend and pitch it with affecting talent – morphing his soulful croon to a heart-warming female-sounding vocal on ‘To Care (Like You)’ or the alien robot choir on ‘Lindesfarne’, which paradoxically flits between cutting-edge future music and traditional song complete with lilting guitar and simple percussion. Blake can sing, this is more than apparent. Especially on ‘Why Don’t You Call Me’ which also showcases his classical training where the breaks and pauses are as breath-taking as his piano playing.
‘I Never Learned To Share’ was met with whooping recognition and in return the room was filled with a wash of intoxicating sine waves, excelling it far and beyond the recorded version with a dizzying electronic crescendo. Of course ‘Limit To Your Love’ lifted the roof – almost literally. The shuddering bass shook the foundations of the building, winding the audience with a sonic punch to the chest punctuated by silences, and as the buzz acoustics faded out a hit-hat solo carried the song to a glorious close.
Being gracious in character Blake pleased his fans by playing ‘Klavierwerke’ from one of the aforementioned EPs. While the minute cymbal hits and rhythmic clicks might have bewildered the Grazia readers, the nerds in the crowd were beaming with glee. To boot, there was a new song in the form of a crashing experimental piece with trombone, looped vocals and sweeping guitar strings.
‘The Wilhelm Scream’ closed the set with bluesy soul vocals that was swallowed by static and white noise in a song the inverts, turns inside-out and returns to form lodging firmly in the psyche in the process, as all great songs should.
While all eyes are on the charts for dubstep’s great cross-over act (Magnetic Man, Katy B), James Blake is sneaking in the singer-songwriter door with something ultimately less throwaway than mere “popstep”.
Photos by Luis Faustino.