James Blake, Town Hall, Auckland, Friday August 2 CONCERT REVIEW

james_blake-terminal-5-650CONVERTING A PRIVATE conversation to the public arena can be a vexing problem, and that problem showed its awkward face during James Blake’s first live gig in Auckland.
Blake’s critical cache is so high after his two extraordinary albums that I was apprehensive from the get-go. If he played it as introverted as the recordings, would he stand a chance of winning over a Friday night crowd? How would he convert his carefully sculpted bedroom electronica into a gig with a sense of live experience, and avoid the sense of stillborn replication that so many electronic creators face when taking their art to meet the people?
I needn’t have worried about the crowd being on Blake’s side. It felt as though the cool kids from every high school in the greater Auckland area had consorted to meet at the hippest gig of the weekend, and amazingly, many of them knew the words, sang along even, when they weren’t otherwise engaged in whipping themselves up into a party fever.
And Blake had obviously carefully figured out how to carry that crowd through the music, firstly, by having two other guys on stage, one deputised to make noises on guitar and sundry machines, the other banging on a small drum kit that was presumably embellished with triggering the odd break out frenzy of urgent dance rhythms. Blake himself commanded most of the attention on vocals, electronic keyboards sundry gadgetry and hanging fringe.
Sadly, however, the attempt to make real-time crowd-pleasing replications of hard-won in-studio triumphs often came across as clumsy and somewhat lacking. Instead of the insect-like percussive chatter on the records, the drums often had a clunky, slightly off sound, while Blake’s pumped-up synth sheen similarly lacked the grace and subtlety of the records, sometimes sounding simply wrong. Blake’s vocals, effortlessly mellow on the recordings, sounded metallic and raspy at times.
IMG_1146Okay, I understand that a live gig can’t hope to capture the intimacy or intricacy of a recording, especially recordings as monumental as Blake’s two very great albums, and I understand that possibly part of the problem was the sound rig, which was clearly capable of pumping out bowel-churning bass, but not with any of the clarity one might hope for – and that goes for the whole sound mix. It made me wish that Blake had opted for the ASB Theatre, an acoustically superior environment, if less apt for dancing.
Don’t get me wrong, though: there were good things about this gig. Despite the mix, Blake’s singing proved to be more impressive than I had hoped, and his instant vocal overdubbing via technological aids proved effective.
jamesThere were at least three or four moments that really grabbed me, a dynamic born from the still-revolutionary way Blake combines jagged post-dubstep electronics with gorgeous smoky balladry. And the lights helped, too: these three skinny lads weren’t much to look at, so it helped that the lightshow was busily mimicking the rhythm and texture of the music.
But here’s the thing: most of us fell in love with those amazing records, which are spectacularly immersive experiences on headphones or a really good stereo system. The two Blake albums are great examples of music created in the studio (or bedroom, or whatever). They’re artificial, extra-sensory expositions that create their own sonic scapes; ones that bear very little resemblance to conventional performative musicians and their two-dimensional replications of live gigs. Those albums create a new conversation, maybe even a new language.
That’s exactly what The Beatles did on Sergeant Pepper, and why they never played that album live. It was a masterful born-in-studio creation, and would have been impossible to re-create with the degree of perfection required. Blake’s music comes from a different era, a different coagulation of styles, but it faces the same problems in the live setting; even more so in the sense that his musicians clearly lack the experience or musical skills to quite carry it off.
IMG_1148Not that the audience cared. They were here to have a good time and scream at opportune moments and chatter with their friends throughout, a fact that was disheartening, frustrating and distracting for anyone who wanted to listen. I mean, there are a lot of quiet sections in the show, and the constant babble was as irritating as hell. Why would people pay good money not to listen? Or have people forgotten how? Or never learned?
Blake seemed like a nice chap. Sincere. Obviously incredibly talented. The show, at just an hour and a quarter, was almost too brief. His final song was a touching rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You’, which was a great way to end, but why not have a second encore of dance mixes just to give them that little bit more for their hard-earned? After all, they would only have had to have pressed a button or two. GARY STEEL

4 Comments

  1. Do you know the full setlist?

  2. massive cringe at the morons shouting out “WILHELM” constantly throughout the set, argh!

  3. Agree with the comment about the idiots chatting through the entire set. I had a group of people next to me who honestly talked through the entire show. So annoying!! I’m sure they were just there trying to be “cool kids” at a “hip concert”….Not interested in the music at all.
    I loved the concert and think James did an awesome job.

  4. Also agree about the idiots talking throughout and also why we’re there people walking in and out all the time, the open doors with the lights beaming through were distracting.
    James Blake is one talented kid though, let’s see where he goes from here.

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