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March 15th, 2011

James Blake – Music Hall of Williamsburg – March 14, 2011

James Blake - Music Hall of Williamsburg - March 14, 2011

Much is said of the “special relationship” between the US and the UK. We share history, culture, and, politically, it feels as if we’re each other’s last allies. But, perhaps most affectionately, we embrace each other’s music. Blues from the Deep South inspired British rockers, from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, and we’ve subsequently traded sounds, forging today’s pop landscape. Although one genre is being disproportionately received rather than sent: dubstep, a form of electronic dance music originating in South East London. Many extol its greatness and few genuinely understand its properties, but most on these shores have come to regard James Blake, the 21-year-old London-based prodigy, as the poster child of the movement.

Blake landed at Music Hall of Williamsburg on Monday, his first trip to and performance in this country. While some still haven’t caught on to the critically praised producer, the show sold out quickly. And such overwhelming support continues to build from Blake’s string of EPs, released in 2010, to his newly minted self-titled debut album. The LP showcases the soft-spoken twentysomething’s soulfulness, matching his delicate yet evocative voice with sparse electronics and varied rhythms. But whereas his debut is the work of a single mind, last night’s show featured Blake, on keyboard and lead vocals, aided by schoolboy pals Rob McAndrews (also known as the producer Airhead) on guitar and sampler and Ben Assiter on drums. The cumulative effect both brought to life the solitary sounds on the album and revealed the wizardry of Blake’s production.

The three musicians, positioned closely to one another, barely communicated but, over the course of the show, their coordination brought complex studio arrangements to life, carefully and powerfully. The set began with James Blake opener “Unluck,” met with tremendous applause and from there, the group used most of their time onstage to explore the rest of the album. Blake’s craft, expert piano work and deft vocal manipulation figured prominently, especially on the enthusiastically received single “The Wilhelm Scream” and “I Never Learnt to Share,” where Blake constructed a three-part harmony by layering his vocals. It was also fascinating to experience how the band used silence, creating minimalism with negative space. During one such pause, Blake rather comically took a sip from what looked to be a cup of noodles and grinned. This humble and affable attitude, crystallized in a breathtaking solo encore performance of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” endeared fans to Blake throughout the night. This looks like a relationship we ought to nurture. —Jared Levy

Photos courtesy of Diana Wong |