Show review: James Blake @ Berklee Performance Center 6.10.14

by Jackie Swisshelm (Journalism), published June 21st 2014

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Before heading south for this year’s Bonnaroo festival, James Blake stopped off at Berklee Performance Center on Tuesday June 10, gracing the acoustically blessed venue with both his charming presence and his heavenly tunes. Opening act Airhead, a.k.a Rob McAndrews, settled in with sometimes sleepy, but always heavily experimental, loops not so different from Blake’s own style—not surprising, considering McAndrews and Blake were actually schoolmates back in London.

But Airhead’s set and sound was much less focused than the headliner’s. His was varied but intentional, and took stabs at a couple different sounds. He arranged a variety of textures and sounds into a dark, metallic, ambient blur. And then he surprised us. He dished out some melodic, electro-acoustic, admittedly down-tempo tracks like “Autumn.” There was something raw and relatable about this style, and it wasn’t just the Karen O. vocals in “Wait.” It was his brilliant variety of warped samples, morphed into loops, morphed into song.

Next, James Blake took his time to take the stage. One thousand seats were filled in the renovated theater, containing one thousand fans anxious for one well-dressed Londoner to emerge. And then there were three: Blake on two sets of keys/samplers, McAndrews on guitar/sampler, and another old schoolmate/friend, Ben Assiter, on drums. With flashing lights and a triangle of true talent, the trio eased into the performance with the delicate notes and hectic samples featured on “CMYK,” from the EP of the same name, and 2009’s “Air & Lack Thereof,” tracks that echoed his opener. “I Never Learnt to Share” introduced Blake’s soft but strong vocals woven with the very thing that sets James Blake miles apart from contemporaries like Bon Iver or even Baths—his skill with a loop pedal.

That, and his covers are phenomenal. He played his heart wrenching version of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love,” Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and the rarer Bill Wither’s “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” each sounding more uniquely James Blake than the last. Other songs like “The Wilhelm Scream” and “I Am Sold” sounded so perfectly timed that you could almost forget that there was a live drummer and guitarist. But the magic of Blake’s voice is that it aches with humanity, from high notes to how easily he can scale an octave. And live, it’s that much more impressive, not to mention dreamlike as his recordings magnified the sound of us, the audience, on an infinite cheering loop (perhaps to Blake’s dismay).

He closed, of course, with fan favorite “Retrograde,” but shortly returned, solo, for an encore comprised of the  gospel-like tune “Measurements.” For this singular song, the crowd hushed, and Blake sang an almost-a cappella version of the song, accompanied by simple chords on keyboard. Slowly but skillfully, he layered harmonies upon harmonies of melancholy lyrics like, “Watching their/ faith in prayers/ will make you see your bones.” With simple words and manipulated mixes, Blake proved himself an unlikely fuse between a poet and an EDM artist.

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