James Blake @ House of Blues 5.8.13
by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published May 20th 2013
photos by Ben Stas
James Blake, 24-year-old British singer/songwriter, producer and all-around wunderkind, has just wrapped up a U.S. tour in support of his expansive new record Overgrown. May 8th brought him back to Boston for a headlining show at House of Blues, with an audience more than double the size of his 2011 Paradise gig. The intimacy of that room played especially well to Blake’s downbeat post-dubstep confessionals, but this evening proved that he’s handling the transition to bigger stages and audiences with grace.
Blake represents something unique in the current landscape of electronic music. He embraces bass-heavy electro soundscapes and the craft of songwriting in equal measure. His self-titled 2011 debut was a late-night headphones record for the ages, full of songs that felt personal and intimate by virtue of both their minimalist production and Blake’s fragile, gorgeous voice and lyrics. Overgrown carries over the charm of the first record, but paints on a much larger canvas. Blake’s aspirations feel wider in scope, especially on songs like the immersive lead single “Retrograde.” As his music and his fan base evolve, Blake’s transition to much larger stages on this tour is only fitting. His stage presence is shy, but he’s a compelling enough performer that he can still command rooms this size without having to say much of anything.
Blake’s live setup hasn’t changed in any major way since his previous tour. He stayed seated at stage right amidst a bank of keyboards and synths, accompanied by a drummer and a guitarist/second keyboardist who added some flesh-and-blood foundation to the songs. Blake employed live manipulation and looping of his own voice, building songs like “I Never Learnt to Share” from the ground up with layers of vocals. He also wielded enough rumbling bass to make Sunn O))) weep, especially on his beloved Feist cover “Limit to Your Love.” Those two favorites from Blake’s self-titled joined “Unluck” and “The Wilhelm Scream” in the setlist, as well as other oldies like the sample-heavy “CMYK” and the atmospheric “Klavierwerke,” both sourced from 2010 EPs. Seven of Overgrown’s ten tracks made up the rest of the set, offering a satisfying balance of new and old.
Blake is hardly the only musician out there looking to blend unconventional electronic production with a singer/songwriter aesthetic, but he’s arguably doing it better than anyone else. It’s not easy to (mostly) fill a venue this size while making the kind of music that Blake does, let alone keep an audience enthralled in it for the entire length of a set. An angelic voice and an Earth-shattering low-end go a long way for Blake, though. See for yourself when he returns to House of Blues on November 5th for 2013’s second Overgrown tour.