Blake brought a mixed bag of moody ballads and upbeat dance tracks to the Orpheum Tuesday night. It all sounded good.
Earlier this month, Kraftwerk brought a future from the past to the Orpheum Theater. London singer/songwriter/producer James Blake brought his own version of the future to the Orpheum Tuesday night. His music, which blends rich post-dub soundscapes with crooning vocal melodies has roots in Kraftwerk’s groundbreaking electropop, as does his general aesthetic—subdued, disengaged from the audience, slightly awkward (almost robotic). His take on the future, though, felt very up to date.
Blake is known for creating virtually all the instrumental tracks on his studio recordings, but he had a live band with him on Tuesday. The setup was unusual, to say the least. Blake himself sat behind a fortress of keyboards: a tricked-out double decker setup to his right and a smaller, more traditional model in front of him, complete with an impressive set of loop pedals. The guitarist played a standard Telecaster, but also controlled some of the trippier effects of the evening with a Moog synth. The drummer’s setup, most futuristic of all, featured an electronic kick and a sampler pad—he often used it in lieu of the snare to create more varied effects, as well as for vocal samples that would have been difficult to recreate live—in addition to its more traditional elements. The three-piece band (including Blake, who is 6’5’’ upright) remained seated and mainly affectless for their entire set, letting the music do the talking.
They wasted little time on the traditional British pleasantries, launching directly into “Always,” a glitchy but contemplative track off Blake’s latest project, The Colour In Anything, released in May. He stuck to his new material for almost the entire first hour of the show, other than “Life Round Here” and “Limit To Your Love,” both from his 2013 sophomore album Overgrown. The new album is quieter, less overtly poppy and electronic than his previous releases, possibly a reaction to the multitude of mainstream mimics (Sam Smith, for instance) who have sprung up since his self-titled debut blew up in 2011. Because of the new album’s less beat-driven nature, I was worried it wouldn’t play as well live.
I was wrong; the new songs all sounded great. The central keyboard lick of “Timeless" was mesmerizing, and “Love Me In Whatever Way” climaxed in a wall of sound that blew me away. The first half of the set ended with “Radio Silence,” the moody album opener, which built its tension methodically around the refrain “I can’t believe this, you don’t wanna see me” until it finally exploded into a controlled panic of layered synths and trappy machine-gun high-hats.
Next, Blake threw a curveball, playing his “Stop What You’re Doing” remix from 2012, back when he was still messing around with maximalism. While not quite “dubstep” per se, there were enough wubs and dubs in there to make Skrillex proud. Needless to say, the throwback sound clashed with The Colour In Anything’s moody vibes. Blake prefaced the song by saying he’d be “surprised if anyone recognized this one,” and he was right. No one seemed to. The shift towards dance music brought a portion of the crowd to life—it even got some of the balcony spectators up on their feet for the first time all night—but many others seemed uncomfortable with the change of pace.
After a break in the action for two ballads, “Forward” (Blake’s contribution to Beyoncé’s Lemonade) and “I Need a Forest Fire” (the new album’s most boring track featuring Justin Vernon), the band catapulted into an extended jam over “I Hope My Life.” The sound verged on deep house at certain points and prog rock at others, eventually morphing into “Voyeur.” While undeniably fun and much more complex than your average dance music, it probably went on a little too long. At the very least, it felt out of place.
Despite the confused middle section, the show ended on a high note. Blake went back to his hits, finishing strong with “Retrograde” and “The Wilhelm Scream,” after which he thanked the crowd succinctly and exited. After two or three tense minutes, he reentered, alone this time. Before beginning his final song, he embarked on his longest, most heartfelt speech of the night.
“I’m going to make a leap, he said, “but this leap, it could be evaded quite easily. There’s no participation in this one; it’s just me.
“Every night, I try to rephrase that,” he explained, coming dangerously close to a chuckle. “Sometimes, it’s kind of rude. I hope that was, er, inoffensive.” The crowd obeyed Blake’s request to an impressive degree, although two balcony patrons got so heated shhh-ing each other that they started a fight and got thrown out. In a vacuum at last, Blake played his live rendition of “Measurements,” beginning with a simple refrain and then harmonizing over himself with the loop pedal again and again until the original melody was unrecognizable. The result was breathtaking.