Opening for James Blake is a task for the brave and the confident. With anticipation hanging tight in the air at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg last night, Canadian electro group Austra fearlessly cut through a theatrical set leading up to Blake’s performance. Between songs, Austra’s lead singer Katie Stelmanis made note of how loudly the crowd cheered for Blake at the mention of his name. “You guys must really like him,” she commented.
The band played to a full and ever-swelling audience, providing pre-Blake dance beats overlaid with the sweeping vocals of several performers. Onstage, Austra is a real troupe, a gang of musicians that seemed to keep growing like the audience before them; when they left the stage it seemed that even more people filed off than had been there during the set. With the mojo of so many theatrically-dressed bandmates—think Medieval-looking dresses, big flowy tops, guys in short shorts—Austra was able to cut through the palpable tension that night. Stelmanis conducted the group from front and center with a serious persona and arms spread wide.
Austra’s dramatic stage presence—the costumes, heavy-handed makeup, the arm-waggling—constrasted sharply with Blake’s modest, subdued composure. Such is the contrast within his own set, the near-silent, acoustic moments and the sound of his breath imploding into full-throttle bassquakes with flashing lights and the euphoria of release.
Twice during the show Blake experienced some technical difficulties, leaving him responsible for entertaining the crowd in the meantime. “This has never happened before,” he mused, offering to tell a story and then shyly backing out. This is not a man who thinks he is super awesome for DJing naked; this is post-dubstep Elliot Smith, the angsty singer-songwriter invaded and changed forever by bass. But when he drops, he drops. The ceiling drops. The people drop. If a Skrillex drop sounds like big-titted robots committing suicide, the drop in “I Never Learnt To Share” sounds like life-giving mitosis, like a cluster of post-orgasmic human cells ripping themselves apart and duplicating exponentially deep inside the womb.
Last time we saw James Blake, Ari Lipstick commented that in Blake’s music, “there is nothing to distinguish the analog from the digital.” During his set last night, there was nothing to distinguish man from machine. The depth of emotion in his performance, from entirely acoustic or a cappella to dirty and dance-y and bass-y, is so phenomenally human there isn’t really anything else to say: it is phenomenally human. His set is so powerfully emotive it seems nostalgic for itself, already mourning the loss of the moment even as it’s happening. Soon after taking the stage, Blake struck up “I Never Learnt To Share,” live-mixing his vocals to include the tide of cheering from the crowd, so that when he looped the sample the crowd cheered at itself, cheered itself cheering Blake until he built a chorus of his own voice and the audience’s metacheering. And during his encore, which he played without the support of drummer and guitarist, the venue seems to be drinking him in, already missing him.