James Blake

by Eli Kao

James Blake

Photo(s) by Ko Wei Lin - © 2008-2014

James Blake, hot off last year's Mercury Prize win for his second full-length album, 2013's Overgrown, was making his first appearance in Taiwan, bringing his trio for a show at Legacy. Tickets checked, hands stamped, and only slightly late, we crossed the cavernous antechamber/bar on the entrance side of the former warehouse, slipped past the immense black curtains, and wove into a rapt-looking crowd on the other side. Blake and his synthesizer fort were on the right side of the stage, drummer Ben Assiter was in the center slightly further back, and guitarist Rob McAndrews was at the left. (Incidentally, as Blake made sure to mention during the show, both bandmates release their own music, Assiter as Mr Assister and McAndrews as Airhead.) It's in character for Blake to try to avoid center stage, to not make a big fuss. In interviews he's soft-spoken, almost reticent. His eyes seem constantly in danger of being covered by low-hanging bangs. His face was a blur on his first album cover and he is pictured at a distance on his latest. This image, however, is a bit of a smoke screen belying the intensity and earnestness of his work.

I felt a little of the old adolescent rush upon entering the field of sound, seeing the band on stage and hearing a familiar refrain: "My brother and my sister don't talk to me… But I don't blame them". The band were in the middle of "I Never Learnt to Share" from the songwriter's 2011 debut album (the lyrics' meaning is slippery; in actuality Blake is an only child). After the next song, he greeted the crowd to enthusiastic cheers, apologized for only being able to use English, and mentioned that the Taipei show was the first show in nearly two months, coming after a heavy 2013 touring schedule for the group. "We're not really sure what we're doing, but we'll try to remember," he joked, adding "But it's fresh. It feels great."

And it did seem that Blake and band were relaxed and in the moment. Which is not to say that they were less than on point. The three former schoolmates and longtime friends know the arrangements inside and out. They're tight enough to play loose, while ensuring that all the parts fall into place. Blake's songs are architectural. He works deftly with both horizontal (density of events) and vertical (density of sound layers) space. This is not to mention the attention to the quality of the sounds themselves, whether they issue from an analog synth (his music is probably one of the best ads that Dave Smith Instruments' Prophet ’08 could get), an electronic drum sample, processed guitar, or Blake's gymnastic vocal chords.

There have been comparisons made to the xx, but Blake is musically much more complex. Any similarity is more related to emotional tone and fondness for an illusion of space that reverb effects provide, if anything. Blake at one point intended to become a professional pianist, and his traditional music background shows in the fact that many of his songs develop not only in the layering manner of much electronic music, but also with the developmental twists and turns of rhythmic and harmonic parts. In the band's performance of "To the Last," that attention to space and density was apparent in the almost pointillistic use of sound, as well as the a cappella break in the middle. Within its spare, wintry arrangement, "To the Last" also holds an example of Blake's sensitivity to the dramatic value of harmony with a surprising left-field chord during the chorus.

The next song, "Air and Lack Thereof," was from Blake's debut single back in 2009 and, with a subwoofer-ready synth bass and frenetic snare patterns, is a nod to Southern rap and trap music. Blake's affinity for rap and hip hop is apparent in the collaborations with Chance the Rapper and the RZA on Overgrown cuts, as well as his use of a Big Boi sample on another album track. He listens to Kendrick Lamar and Jeremih. In his younger days, Blake was drawn to the new R&B of D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill, and later to Jamaican dub via the 2-step and dubstep of UK garage, with labels like DMZ and others on the London club scene in the ’00s. Sounds that can be traced to the likes of King Tubby, Mad Professor, Lee "Scratch" Perry and other dub innovators surface repeatedly in his music. The band played one example, "I Am Sold," from Overgrown, where the kick drum pattern, guitar riff, and vocal delay effects are all reminiscent of a dub remix. Later, the band performed their take on Feist's "Limit to Your Love" which features an extended, thick-as-molasses dub breakdown towards the end with an undulating synth note and more delay. Blake also uses a sound equivalent to the air horn sample (for an ear-opening cultural history of this sound check out this article) born in Jamaican dancehall and ubiquitous on rap mixes over the past decade. It appears in "Life Round Here" and more obviously in "Digital Lion," a song on Overgrown produced with Brian Eno that also features stuttering snares and gospel-like vocalizations. Another great tune from an earlier release that they played, "CMYK," had the extended coda that the group often adds live. In it Assiter's drums elaborate the earlier syncopated pattern into a rapid-fire beat resembling a Trinidadian soca. Blake wears these many influences on his sleeve, and I imagine would be the first to admit the importance of Caribbean and African-American musical traditions to what he does. He refigures them, combining them with elements of his traditional music training, adding his spartan lyrics, and turning it all into a kind of experimental hybrid that is simultaneously an homage to musical origins and also very personal.

Oh, and then there's his signature croon. James Blake is a crooner. The song "Overgrown" is one of the many that showcase Blake's vocals, from warm tenor to quivering falsetto. (A friend and I, proving the power of stereotypes, later speculated that he started as a choirboy back in England.) In general, Blake's voice was in fine form for the show, and he showed it off during his Joni Mitchell cover, "A Case of You," as well. In contrast to the stream of words in "A Case of You," Blake's lyrics are spare. The lyrics to "Overgrown," written, in fact, after meeting and talking with Joni Mitchell, are no different. They speak to time and impermanence with imagery that is direct and minimal: "I don't wanna be a star, but a stone on the shore, a lone doorframe in a war, when everything's overgrown."

McAndrews' finger-picked guitar in "Lindisfarne" had seemed folk-like relative to the rest of the material, in a pleasant way. However, the part of the night that stuck out the most stylistically, also in a good way, came around two-thirds of the way through when Blake announced they were going to head into 1-800-Dinosaur territory (1-800-Dinosaur is Blake's new label and club night) and launched into "Voyeur," a track that turns into a club-ready house banger, cowbell and all. The kick was bone-rattling live, the crowd began bouncing in sync and I felt as if transported to a totally different party. My girlfriend, Cynthia, turned to me and jokingly asked, "Where are we?"

Blake may project an austere image, but he has a self-deprecating, wry sense of humor in the British vein and when the first attempt at singing the rising vocal loop of "Retrograde" turned out a little off, he stopped to take a second stab at it, commenting, "I can tell everything from (drummer) Ben's face, whether we should re-start, or just go home or whatever." After "Retrograde," with its particularly lopsided catchiness-to-singability ratio, Blake thanked the audience, said the next song was going to be the last one, and launched into "Wilhelm Scream," a reworking of a song by his musician father, from Blake's eponymous 2011 album. The climactic wall of synth sound and syncopated kick towards the end is a moment of thrilling density in Blake's music. Like many in the crowd, I wasn't ready for it to stop, but Blake and band left the stage and the ritual chants of "encore" and "one more song" began. Promisingly, the house lights remained off and minutes later Blake emerged to do a solo, "Measurements." The piece requires repeated layering of looped vocal lines, and before starting Blake asked the crowd for quiet. Blake added layer upon layer, harmonizing and transforming his single voice into a gospel-tinged choir. Only after this vocal loop had been properly constructed did he lay into the first chords on the keyboard. He played the chords under the loop for a while and then, after playing a final one, stood up and walked offstage with a farewell smile, the newly disembodied vocals continuing unabated.

The epilogue to this evening at Legacy with James Blake and group was actually meeting James Blake and group (Well, not Lassiter, but Blake and guitarist McAndrews.) Outside, after the show, someone said Blake was out back hanging out and signing autographs. After a brief debate over whether to play it cool or play it like fanboys and girls, the latter impulse won out. We hurried around to the rear entrance of Legacy and saw the two meter tall Blake chatting, posing for photos and signing autographs. Speaking of adolescent excitement, I like to think that the other two with me, Cynthia and friend, Ting, had more butterflies in their stomachs than I as we waited for our turn, but for my part I had a hyperactive voice in my head repeating, "Just be cool, be cool, conversation not adulation…" And he made time for conversation. We chatted about the rest of the tour and Taipei (Blake was impressed by the live harpist in their hotel's lobby, saying something to the effect of "Any place that has live harp in the lobby must be a gentle, cultured country"). We also chatted about nicknames in Taiwan (my companions' nicknames were 小馬 and 小兔, and I asked them what nickname they'd give Blake. Before we could offer up something he smiled and suggested, "Maybe just 'lanky fuck'?"), and while signing an autograph for me (yeah, yeah, not cool, I know) he noted my name and started talking about the Arthur Russell song by that title (whose subject, unfortunately, is an unwanted dog), insisting the association was a positive one and calling it probably one of his favorite Arthur Russell songs. In conversation Blake was both engaged and easygoing. We also spoke with McAndrews, who was similarly friendly and down-to-earth. In an interview last year, McAndrews made this observation: "Through knowing James and being on tour with him, I've realized that the people who are at the top of their game are normal people, which has been really reassuring to see."

James Blake

Photo(s) by Ko Wei Lin - © 2008-2014

Set list:

I Never Learnt to Share
Life Round Here / Come Thru
To the Last
Air and Lack Thereof
I am Sold
Digital Lion
Our Love Comes Back
Case of You
Limit to your Love
Wilhelm Scream