I don’t quite know what to make of James Blake. He’s a six-five British kid with strikingly good looks, a soulful voice that trips over itself when delivering lyrics and melody and piano chops that could save his life one day in a battle with the devil. So in that way, he could be lumped in with tons of other cute British boys whose music I just don’t care all that much about.
Then there’s James Blake, the dubstep producer wunderkind who made an odd choice to take the skills that he learned in producing and apply them to songs. The sampling techniques used on “CMYK” and “Air And Lack Thereof” were turned back upon the artist—James Blake samples himself, distorts his own music and vocals, adding, subtracting, synthesizing. It’s alchemy and algebra. For James Blake, there is nothing to distinguish the analog and the digital.
The most surprising thing about one of James Blake’s first performances in the United States was that he was able to reproduce everything live. There is so much production on James Blake, so many little effects and samples and subversions—but onstage, everything sounded so live. And more than that, it sounded alive. Blake came with a guitarist/sampler and a drummer, and between the three of them the sounds on the record were expanded and colored in onstage.
The audience came for an xx-style makeout club, but James Blake’s music demanded full attention. There were things people had probably never heard before—the indie kids had never heard the breakdowns that dubstep is famous for, the dubstep kids had never felt the tingling sensation that a real live soul singer produces. And I have never heard such silence from a crowd, such complete and total silence. During the songs that fell silent in the middle—and there are quite a few—the crowd just stared at James Blake, counting to himself before the breakdowns. Then the applause and the dancing began.
It was all so jarring—the fangirls (“Hi James!” being shouted at multiple occasions, Blake grinning “hi” back to shrieks), the subbass, the autotune/vocodered/sampled/shifted vocals coming out of a lanky British kid, piano solos, waves of noise—but it all made so much sense live. James Blake’s performance was understated, professional, but utterly shell-shocked—I don’t think anybody, least of all he, expected this.