At the Commodore Ballroom on Sunday, September 25
“Beacon, don’t fly too high,” insisted 22-year-old genre-shattering musician James Blake during his sold-out performance last Sunday night at the Commodore Ballroom. Those lyrics well matched a dramatically punctuated rendition of Blake’s “Lindisfarne I”, anchoring the audience to his every harmonic chord. Cushioning the dense stage smoke with keyboard and sampler, Blake had us cozily gratified. We weren’t going anywhere without him.
Providing a shoulder-shuffling set beforehand was Teengirl Fantasy, two college friends with synth-pop nostalgia for the early ’90s. Like a pre-drink for sobriety, Teengirl effectively roused the audience to a near-climax of bouncing and swaying, though not quite tipping anyone over into full-on dance mode.
This worked. Teengirl’s performance functioned so pleasantly for Blake’s Vancouver debut, dosing the sleepy spectators with an energy boost via urgent bass. With the crowd rousing, Teengirl streamed through four or five long tracks in a 45-minute set.
Then came Blake, the sturdy Londoner wearing a denim shirt and a quiet countenance, hardly the guise of a classically trained pianist who’s been hailed by the Guardian and Pitchfork as “the babyface of dubstep” with a “sweetly sung voice”, respectively.
With anticipation as thick as the manufactured fog, the audience crowed in welcome as Blake settled himself up front to open with “Unluck”, the beginning track from his massively acclaimed self-titled debut album. The bright, synthesized clicks of “Unluck” popped with minimal feedback, creating an uncanny resemblance to the song’s album version.
Blake didn’t stray too far musically on his older tracks during this performance, only stretching the timing for “Limit to Your Love”, a crowd-pleaser in which his drummer threw in some Jamaican sound.
However, the comfort in Blake’s technical consistency made for a dreamily satisfying show. Moving through “Give Me My Month”, “Tep and the Logic”, and “I Never Learnt to Share” with mystifying vocal harmony loops and lulling reverberation, Blake teased the audience’s collective autonomic nervous system, massaging the standing crowd into a swaying, bobbing sea of buoys. All appeared tied to the spot, but somehow free.
Blake observed this attachment with seeming modesty, grinning quietly after each song and muttering a few small words about enjoying Canada and the fan-printed T-shirts for sale in the lobby. Though not a conventional heartthrob, Blake still had the occasional “You’re the most handsome man!” shout-out to further crinkle his already crinkly smile.
As if by sticking closely to the original production of older tunes he somehow salvaged a reserve for tracks from the upcoming EP Enough Thunder, Blake became much more vibrant when playing new songs. His body moved with the rich motions of his soulful voice, particularly during the encore performance, which included a reveling piano-accompanied cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”.
Blake also towered over his new EP’s title track with strong piano skills and warbling vocals that melted in waves of mournful sentiment. Here, Blake seemed to help himself to the same warm musical satisfaction he had dutifully departed to his audience beforehand.
With Justin Vernon waiting in the wings (having played a show earlier that evening at the Orpheum), and a fresh-released Bon Iver-James Blake track climbing up YouTube, one couldn’t help but wonder if this Vancouver audience would be in for a surprise performance. Blake might have his hands in collaborations with Pitchfork’s darlings, but indulging that aspect of celebrity was not on the agenda.
In desperate grasps to define his mesmerizing array of sound, critics reckon Blake as all kinds of wunderkind: a “dubstep” mastermind, a lyrical pauper, a chillingly bold Southern soul singer, and an R&B craftsman. However, the cold separation of definable parts only endangers the evolutionary composition of Blake’s work: he may be shifting musical taste into a completely unchartered territory for which we cannot simply explain by familiar terms. Blake gave his audience an entry point for expanding the musical discourse on Sunday night, instead of pointedly referencing the influences and genres by which he creates new beats. Grounding the audience in pleasing synth repetition and molten bass, Blake audibly formed a blueprint. From here we can expand, but within the established boundaries. We can fly, but not too high.
A new kid in town, freelance writer and UVic graduate Sarah Bauer will always argue in favour of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait album. Always.