James-blake-music.jpg
James Blake

Thursday, May 19

Tractor Tavern

So it turns out the Tractor isn't the best place to see a show if it's sold out

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James Blake Plays to the Smallest Audience He'll Ever Play Again in Seattle Last Night at the Tractor

James-blake-music.jpg
James Blake

Thursday, May 19

Tractor Tavern

So it turns out the Tractor isn't the best place to see a show if it's sold out and all the musicians play sitting down. Last night I could barely see the light glinting off the top of James Blake's head as he sat at his keyboard; the two musicians who joined him on stage--childhood friends of Blake's, apparently, Ben Assiter on a drum pad and cymbals and Rob McAndrews on guitar--also sat, and through the sea of heads in front of me I never saw either of their faces.

No matter--the music came through quite well. Blake's set began smoothly enough; he played "Unluck" and "Give Me My Month" before wandering into an instrumental interlude of sorts, featuring his keyboard sending shimmering waves of sound over the room and Blake occasionally moaning, ghost-like, into the mike. That mike failed for a brief moment--the first line of "I Never Learnt to Share"--but on a second attempt, Blake's voice, a cappella, came through clear and beautiful. His voice is such that singing a line like "My brother and my sister don't speak to me/But I don't blame them," he sounds not smarmy or bitter but deeply sorrowful and repentant.

In fact, Blake's voice is so amazing--emotive, colorful, developed--that I started to wonder why he chooses to mask it so frequently via Auto-Tune, rendering it bubbly and inhuman. It certainly isn't to hide any flaws in his vocals. I can only conclude (as does Eric Grandy in his piece on Blake in this week's paper) that Blake is set on doing something entirely different: He doesn't quite want to be an electronic producer, he doesn't quite want to be a pianist, he doesn't quite want to be a soul singer--he wants to be part of those things and all of those things at once.

One of the best moments of Blake's set last night was also one of those obvious blends of the above genres--during "Klavierwerke," off his 2010 EP of the same name, over skittering percussion, Blake repeats one echoing word into the mike as his keys move at a hurried, frenetic pace and a cymbal clash crescendos. A clacking percussion sounds like either a rain of bullets or a woodpecker. Sometimes he just utters the word, sometimes he drags it out over a run of notes. There's not quite a discernible melody, but the effect of all these elements that make up the song is transcendent.

A huge applause greeted the opening piano line of Blake's most recognizable song, his bluesy cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love." He nailed it--by the third or fourth time he'd bleakly sung the line "There's a limit to your care," everyone in the room wanted to console him or hold him or pet him. Blake closed his short set with another cover, and perhaps the most melodic song on his album, "The Wilhelm Scream" (a re-envisioning of a song called "Where to Turn," originally written by his father), before reappearing by himself to perform a one-song encore of his new song, "Heartless." He saved his most swoon-worthy vocal performance for last--"Heartless" had no vocal effects and no backing band, just Blake in his most natural form, playing keys and belting the heartaching song.

Back in the middle of the set, some citizen in the audience had cried, "Seattle is the shit!," to which Blake had replied, "Yeah, it is. I'd like to come back," a sentiment he repeated a few more times throughout the evening. It's a nice thought, but last night served as a reminder that Blake's star is rapidly on the rise, and I believe that everyone in the packed audience knew that last night was the closest they'd ever get to him.

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