Last night I had the privilege of seeing the up-and-coming electronic producer James Blake play at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. It was a privilege first and foremost because of how difficult it is to find tickets to the young Londoner’s shows here in the United States. The Philadelphia show had sold out twice - first at Johnny Brenda’s and then again after moving to the FUC basement – before I was able to get tickets. By some lucky chance I was up before 10 am one morning last week when they released a few extra tickets, and I snapped up two.
I hadn’t listened to his full-length, James Blake, and I felt a little guilty about buying tickets on name alone. I was curious what all the fuss was about. I’d liked Air & the Lack Thereof as well as the very staticky, pushing bass of The Wilhelm Scream, but at the same time I was confident the James Blake was another Pitchfork overreaction. At first blush, the music was different – but not necessarily the landmark production music blogs have made it out to be.
And hell, I was wrong.
I didn’t know what to expect, other than a very nice, chilled out atmosphere for this show. I got a copy of Blake’s self-titled debut and listened to it thoroughly for the past two weeks. It has a very nice feel to it, like something for a rainy night, to blare out of open car windows as you speed down the highway in the darkness. I love that kind of minimal, lonely sound.
The opener, Active Child, was a hometown band touring with Blake. They put on a pretty good show with synths, bass and harp. My friend who’d come with me, was more excited about their set than the prospect of James Blake.
But he was in the minority. Many of the audience – drinking openly from forties and bottles of wine, cans of PBR and Magner’s – were extremely excited about James Blake, and would respond to each mention of his name with an over the top cheer. I couldn’t tell if they were piss-drunk or being sarcastic.
As the young Blake took the stage, he was interrupted by long cheers and chants from the audience before launching into “Untitled,” the opener from James Blake. Each song was broken up by frenzied shouts from the crowd. It was substantially less relaxed than I’d hoped. One intoxicated man next to me felt the need to keep shouting “IT’S JAMES BLAAAAKE” during breathers from the heavy bass.
The bass spectrum made the show. I haven’t felt something as heavy since seeing Rusko play on the HARD summer tour last August, but where as Christopher Mercer’s spastic, all-out ear assault tactic is perfect for a party environment, there was something more delicate and paced about Blake’s work.
I wasn’t totally into it at first, it was a little boring to be honest. But then came the beautiful two-part “Lindsfarne” followed shortly by album standout, and exercise in Dubstep basics, “I Never Learnt to Share.” The song began with Blake looping his voice. In recording, he had accidentally captured the cheer of the crowd as they recognized the track. We laughed at our sudden intrusion into the performance.
It built and built, Blake’s voice and ours looping over the buzzing synthesizers and guitar, over the quickening drums until finally the beat dropped in an amazing display of force that nearly knocked me over. The century old church gave a familiar shake in time to the blast, and another summer concert season had begun for me.
After that came “Klavierwerke,” which I had never heard before. It was by far the standout of the show, hypnotizing myself and my friend into its beat. Any reservations I had at this point were out the window. My friend would later describe it as “a complete wall of sound – there was no way he could’ve thrown more into it if he tried.” It was a little suffocating, almost. The air was hot and thick with the hundreds of bodies in the room, and the pulsating blast of the music caused me to lose sense of myself, lose sense of the world around.
I resurfaced a few songs later as Blake closed with his current single, “The Wilhelm Scream.” It’s my personal favorite of what he’s done so far. The melody builds around his vocals until Blake himself seems buried in deep in it, before finally breaking, returning to his angelic voice and an electronic bass drum hit.
The whole show put me in mind of a current raging debate in corners of the electronic world about what’s next. The thing called “Dubstep” has become the dance music of choice, focusing less on melody or longevity and that moment where the beat drops. It’s stripped away the rest of the song and stuck with the part that excites us the most. “I Never Learnt to Share” and “The Wilhelm Scream” are both beautiful tracks that make use of this technique.
But Blake isn’t Dubstep, because of all the numerous other things at work in there: soul and R&B ethos, the few tinkly piano ballads that he played between breakbeats, those beautiful vocals. His work is characteristic of modern taste, drawing from too many corners to be shoehorned into one genre. Maybe it doesn’t have to be.
As for the show, it ruined James Blake forever to me. Listening to him on a stereo just can’t compare when you’ve felt that bassline.