James Blake’s sold out set at Boston’s House of Blues on October 4th was a haunting digital deconstruction of electronic music’s most iconoclastic mind. The young Brit has established himself as an almost anti-dance icon whose music showcases a masterful semblance of groove and soul but without resorting to the drops and air horns lazy DJ’s rely on to cater towards the least common denominator.
For his Boston set, Blake was joined by a drummer as well as a guitarist, but both auxiliary performers were working double-duty. Blake’s drummer was using a Roland Drum Pad to trigger percussive blasts in addition to prerecorded samples of Blake’s voice. The telecaster strapped member of the trio additionally rocked a mini keyboard synched up with some samplers as well as a foot-operated Moog synthesizer. For Blake’s part, he relied on a pair of Nord keyboards for the heavy duty work and leaned on his Prophet 08 synth for his leads.
Blake commented early on that the set was “100% live” and had “no theft,” a reference to the amount of samples electronic musicians use by other artists these days. “It’s electronic music, if that means anything anymore.”
One major area Blake distinguishes himself from other electronica artists is in his song structure, in that he actually cares about it. It’s all too common to come across DJ/Producers whose beats revolves around the rise and fall of tension, a tried and true formula to get audiences dancing like shooting fish in a barrel. Where Blake strays from the pack is in the length he goes to produce cohesive albums worth listening to on at home.
His honey-sweet vocals overlapped brooding instrumentals that felt like a fusion of Sam Smith and The xx. Blake’s set sounded a lot more like 90’s House icons Sasha & Digweed, a duo that famously broke new technological ground in their ability to produce dance tracks on the fly, but unlike Sasha & Digweed, Blake is all live and didn’t need any help from Ableton. Blake’s replication of his studio tracks in the live is more akin to acts like LCD Soundsystem or Bon Iver, the latter of which Blake has collaborated with.
“Forward,” a track he made with Beyoncé, was an easy crowd-pleaser in addition to a respectful nod to one of the most important artists of our generation, and “Retrograde” probably got the largest response out of his audience of the entire night. While his big time fans likely knew each and every tune he played note for note, what made his performance in Boston entrancing was that folks who’d never heard him before could get lost in the Cyberpunk Soul Ballads being crafted before our eyes and ears while following Blake on the journey he’d been navigating from the get-go.
If you came to dance, you had your moments but were likely disappointed, and if you wanted to see a show you could get drunk and sing your heart out to, again, you couldn’t have picked a worse show. With that said, Blake’s set demonstrated in no uncertain terms why talents from Brian Eno to Drake are looking to Blake to help them color in the shapes they’ve already outlined. For a guy with a small frame, shy demeanor and lacking much of a stage presence, he was able to craft fluid sonic structures that captivated his audience for well over an hour. Blake’s Boston performance was a chance to see a musician practice audio alchemy. Understanding how he does what he does isn’t too hard to do with a sneak peak at his gear. But really understanding what he is doing remains a mystery and that’s what made his concert magical.