Thursday, June 09, 2011

James Blake / Cloud Boat @ HMV Institute, 8th June 2011

Of all the chilled out artists around right now James Blake seems to be sub zero, his soulful, sparse vocals matched by the minimalism of the music...simple keyboards occasionally interrupted by the odd kidney rupturing slab of dubstep. It’s music for listening to in the dark, with just your gentle sobs and the pitter patter of the rain on your lonely bedsit window for company. So the prospect of watching/listening to it all in a live setting, jam packed with other people, was strangely unsettling. All it takes is one cackling fool too fond of the sound of their own voice and that delicate world that Blake struggles to create is shattered like an eggshell under an elephant.

Opening act Cloud Boat, who occupy a similarly fragile world to Blake, sadly suffered this fate from time to time. Purveyors of twitchily atmospheric experimental electronica their big sell are the extraordinary vocal abilities of the duo’s lead singer. Capable of reaching an unearthly falsetto he genuinely seemed lost in the moment, frequently clamping his eyes shut or hunching over a box of electronic trickery responsible for the rumbling dubsteppy beats. Currently unsigned there’s not much of their stuff out there right now but they’re best experienced live anyway. Hypnotic.

By the time James Blake came onstage the venue was rammed. In a matter of months he’s gone from relative obscurity to coming in just below Jessie J as the BBC’s Sound of 2011, a fact that he still appears to be struggling with a little (he’s the polar opposite of JJ). Wandering onstage with his band (friends from his schooldays) he seemed pretty stunned by the size and reaction of the crowd. Inevitably if you’ve got a venue full of people there will be chattering. That’s not a major problem at some gigs but when you’re listening to a dude who uses silence as much as noise, it is. As a result some of the emotional intensity that Blake’s seeking to build up was frequently demolished by the endless background babble. Can you think of any other form of performance where people would think it was okay to natter, screech and cackle throughout? Nope, me neither. Tools.

Putting that aside, Blake’s actually attempting to do something pretty brave, fusing the kind of emotionally naked performances that would make Bon Iver seem a bit of a lad with huge great chunks of room shaking dubstep. Scattered in amongst these sonic experiments were more straightforward piano pieces that, at times, seemed at odds with what some of the crowd were expecting. Much of the set floated away into the ether, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Music’s there to take us somewhere else and Blake can certainly do that. It all worked best on the latter tracks though, where Blake’s musical melting pot combined to create something truly original. His cover of Feist’s Limit to Your Love began with delicate piano before the odd earthquake rumble faded in and out. It’s a powerful combination...literally capable of moving you in ways that few tracks manage. The Wilhelm Scream takes a similar approach, but if anything it was even more low key and haunting this evening. Taking things up a notch or three a 10 minute or so a version of Digital Mystikz’s Anti War Dub finally gave the crowd something to really nod along to. Joined by one of the dudes from Cloud Boat on trombone (yep...a trombone...dubstep meets brass band) it was an extended jam of dubby beats pierced by odd slivers of synth and Blake’s oddly detached rendition of the track’s main lyric “We don’t want no war tonight, we don’t want a fuss and a fight”. The encore saw the unveiling of a newish track ‘Heartbreak’, Blake alone and on piano. Stripped of the dubstep garnish that’s attracted so much attention – and perhaps closer to Arthur Russell than anything else – he seemed even more vulnerable up there, the living embodiment of much of his material. When all the hype’s died down (and I think he'll be more comfortable when it does) it’ll be fascinating to see where he goes from here...

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