James Blake @ Turner Hall Ballroom
Nov. 14, 2013
With its marriage of electronic music and the type of falsettoed, soulful
songwriter balladeering that's grown increasingly popular over the last half a
decade or so, James Blake’s self-titled debut became one of the breakout albums
of 2011. The sound wasn’t all that far removed from the English singer-songwriter’s
Wisconsin counterpart, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who has also found his broadest
success by coupling soulful, electronic music with intimate songwriting, and the
two even worked on a single called Fall Creek Boys' Choir for the Enough
Thunder EP that Blake released between James Blake and his latest
full-length effort, Overgrown. Earlier this year, Blake also
collaborated with another rising Midwestern star, Chance the Rapper, for a
remix of the Overgrown track "Life Round Here." Blake has
already covered a lot of ground in his short career, but last night was his
first appearance in Milwaukee. Hopefully there will be more to come.
Over the course of 14 tracks, Blake explored a good amount of his catalog including songs from his numerous EPs, both albums and a collaboration with Brian Eno. Between the extra players that joined him on stage and the Turner Hall Ballroom's sound system, it was easy to see why his tracks resonate. The power of songs like “Life Around Here” owes a good amount of its appeal to its production, which was most fully realized on stage with a combination acoustic and electronic drum set and electric guitar, most potently displayed on final song and fan favorite, "The Wilhelm Scream." The set opener "I Never Learnt to Share" introduced Blake's looping effects as a strong part of the performance, layering vocal tracks repeatedly to create harmonies that helped fill songs with a sonic range extending from Blake's high voice to the intense depth charges of dubstep’s bass.
One of the challenges of working with both intimate songwriting and danceable electronic production is that exploring the full range of possibilities inherent in both is going to sometimes reach the limits in either direction. Three songs throughout the night were almost completely instrumental, and relied on the increasing intensity of layering dance rhythms, textures and drum effects like electronic cowbell until the songs reached maximum capacity and dissolved. The juxtaposition of dance tracks and balladry takes almost a recalibration as a listener. Blake's cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love," in comparison, is sparse, and begins with eerie quiet before incorporating song-specific, and measured electronic elements.
Blake expressed some frustration toward the end of the evening regarding the quality of his performance, explaining to the audience that perhaps some distracting sounds had been incorporated into his looping effects and may have been unsuccessful. If there were any glaring flaws, though, they were unapparent to most listeners. Blake closed the show with an encore of “Measurements,” which he explained was out of the ordinary. After a false start caused by an audience member’s interruption, which he handled with humor, Blake ended the night on a note that perfectly exemplified the wintry quiet and peace that’s so apparent throughout his work, leaving the stage while the song repeated on loop.