James Blake’s self-titled debut album, released in February, has been on fairly constant rotation for me this year, so I went into his concert at 9:30 Club Sunday with high expectations. I admit I was concerned about how his lush, layered and precise album would translate to a live performance; still, I had been spreading the gospel of James Blake to anyone who would listen all year, so I was giddy with anticipation. And he did not disappoint - he captivated.
The 23-year old London native is tall & slim, topped by a messy mop of hair. His performance was bookended by solo songs, swelling into more contemporary, modulated sounds before coming back home. He opened with “Heartbreak,” a meditative, bluesy, tender song that showcases Blake’s unique and haunting vocals. Joined on stage by his band, he dove into some songs from his album – “I Never Learnt to Share” was quite the crowd pleaser, each new loop eliciting a cheer from the crowd; but the highlight was his performance of “CMYK,” from his 2010 EP of the same name. The richly layered loops built up slowly, and I found myself mesmerized by the ever-more complicated drumming happening on stage; by Blake’s badge, swinging back & forth in counterbalance to his movements; and by the electronic-analog balance that came in like waves, constantly shifting from one to the other.
This is the genius of his live performance – the balance between analog and digital. The album is meditative and precise, but his live performance is messier, in the best sort of way. It is human, and he is able to connect to the audience this way, using live sampling of his voice & every instrument on stage, having his process out on display for the audience to engage in. Here is a musician who knows the pleasure of negative space – of a pregnant pause, or a hiss – and his delivery is clearly influenced by that. He manages to blend soulful, expressive content with innovative production to create a thoughtful, honest performance that resonates.