James Blake @ the Showbox: Intent on Innovation

James Blake’s first concert Seattle in was in May at the Tractor, which was packed to its 350-person capacity. Four months later, this past Saturday, Blake sold out the 1,100-seat Showbox. Both crowds—diverse, expectant, physically entwined—were near silent as the 22-year-old Brit performed with his two-piece band. Their deference was reflected in Blake’s music, which involved substantial emptiness, gaping bass, and Blake’s acrobatic voice, all squeezed and stretched into digital inscrutability. Its novelty aroused a stunned, swaying daze. 

Throughout Saturday’s show, Blake’s voice caromed between notes like the EKG readout of a mild but persistent heart attack. Half-swallowed and solemn, his delivery was counterintuitive, that of a stylist intent on a unique vocal stamp more than a refined singer-songwriter. He sometimes bent or frayed amorphous, Impressionist scat-sounds with AutoTune, though exactly when was hard to tell. He repeated words or phrases—“rain coat,” “my brother and sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them,” “falling”—with zero regard for verse-chorus-verse song structure. He switched from funereal organ on opener “Unluck” to jazzy piano on “I Only Know” and back again from song to song, occasionally singing and playing solo while the band sat in darkness.

Drummer Ben Assiter’s movements barely registered, his tiny taps on an electronic drum pad and standard kit hovering on either side of the beat. Rob McAndrews switched from guitar to bass to sequencer, applying dub reggae-style sonar pings and unexpected reverb. He finger picked guitar on a track reminiscent of Bon Iver’s filter-folk—a natural reference given the recent collaboration between Blake and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. They ended set closer and would-be hit “The Limit to Your Love” with a huge, gothic dub jam, Assiter’s rhythmic minimalism beholden to Jamaican studio pioneer King Tubby. Behind the trio, strobe lights blasted like distant pulsars.

Blake offered more banter between songs than in May, praising Seattle’s scenery, describing a few days spent on Bainbridge Island “looking at the mountains and getting thoroughly drunk.”

The show was about more serious stuff than feel-good shout-outs, however. Blake and his expert band, reserved as they were, were intent on musical innovation. Like minds like SBTRKT and Jamie Woon have appeared out of the UK in Blake’s wake; the Weeknd and Frank Ocean are perhaps their more conventional American counterparts, dwelling in a newly-forged space between R&B and minimal techno. More than any of them, Blake evokes weight and texture through negative space—a sound not easy to make and strangely reassuring. With mere suggesion, his music evoked worlds.

Photo by Erica Toelle