The singer-songwriter showcased his ethereal voice and impressive mastery of electronic production at the House of Blues. Despite an exciting light show, attendees expecting a more intimate atmosphere were left wanting.

2/20/19 – House of Blues

James Blake makes music for melancholic listening on a rainy day. The 30-year-old Brit’s voice, which sounds more fitting for a French monastery than on a Travis Scott collaboration, blends to eerie perfection with his haunting and cavernous production. His gloomy lyrics further underline his songs’ isolating purpose. Blake is best listened to alone, on a nice pair of headphones, allowing the eclectic minutiae of his production and his cryptic lyrics to sink in. Blake’s wonder lies in the space between melodies, like the low buzz and rippling percussion on “The Wilhelm Scream” that build to what sounds like an amplified raindrop.

At the 2500-person House of Blues, Blake’s moody approach proved ineffective. The set was undoubtedly impressive with stunning light sequences, Blake’s inimitable vocal abilities, and a seemingly infinite amount of electronic sounds and loops. But Blake was unable to deliver an intimate atmosphere—the overwhelming affect in his recorded tracks—until he played a Boiler Room-esque breakdown towards the end of the set. At the Paradise Rock Club or Sinclair perhaps, the music’s personality would’ve shone brighter. Instead, the venue’s vastness and reliance on stage production in order to please its further regions overshadowed what Blake is at heart: a singer-songwriter.

Blake sat down to a synth-piano setup stage right wearing a long black trench coat accompanied by band members he’s known since childhood: a drummer at center stage and a multi-instrumentalist who switched between cello, keyboard, and guitar on the left. He opened with “Assume Form” the first track off his new album of the same name. The performance commenced a hypnotizing light show with beams of vibrating green light shining down on each band member periodically. The elegant piano intro and use of the cello underlined Blake’s classical training; the power and control in his voice was breathtaking. However, the song’s end lacked the traditional held crescendo to galvanize the crowd. The result was an applause more appropriate for a Yo-Yo Ma show than your favorite rapper’s producer.

The same reaction occurred throughout the night. Blake would evoke awe in the crowd, receive routine applause, then proceed to wow again. There was a dissonance between the perceived reception for such a popular artist and the realization that Blake wasn’t capable of delivering a satisfying show at such a large scale; his music simply wouldn’t allow it. On “Mile High” for example, Blake’s collaboration on Assume Form with Travis Scott—who hosts some of the wildest shows of his generation—Blake revealed his tendency to deconstruct rather than build. After each Scott verse, he would sing his echoed “by yourself” part in the recording with only a piano backing him. The song, which has a sleepy mood to begin with, became more personal through Blake’s solo arrangement; but it also took away the song’s edginess. Had Scott performed it, one could imagine a deafening chorus of, “I just be mile high clubbin,” from the crowd. In Blake’s hands, the awesome pan flute sounds were highlighted but felt underwhelming for a live show.

Blake’s musicality has always outshined the energy of his songs, so when tension does build under layers of sounds, the result is an emotional punch to the gut. A couple of moments emphasized this point. The first was a vibrant sonic explosion when Blake sings, “suddenly I’m hit” on “Retrograde.” Blake impressively performed the unmistakable vocal loop that the song builds on, so when he built to that moment when the synth sounds like a fire alarm, the catharsis was palpable. The other moment was when he turned the show into a rave. The song began with a disquieting combination of experimental synth noises and unpredictable vocal parts, but then he somehow rearranged all the sounds into an unbelievably danceable techno track. Strobe lights shined into the audience, and it was the most fun one could have outside of a London nightclub. It was a prime example of Blake’s talent being enjoyed rather than being merely admired.

While Blake’s show was worth attending to witness his genius, it’s questionable whether it’s worth seeing him twice in a similar circumstance. Blake’s music is too unorthodox to place in a traditional live setting; his personality expresses itself in his music more than his presence on stage. For a more immersive show, perhaps he could book a show at the Hayden Planetarium, à la How to Dress Well.

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