Gig review: James Blake 3/14/2011, Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY

Last night I said I wasn’t going to review this gig, but I guess I lied. I woke up this morning and changed my mind. Über-hyped James Blake (previously hyped on this blog) played his US debut to a sold out Music Hall of Williamsburg on Monday night. I went into this gig with very high expectations and while I was left a little underwhelmed, I am still very glad that I went.

For those uninitiated, Music Hall of Williamsburg is a literal carbon copy of the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, which is a wonderful venue in its own right, so I find this venue to be on the same level. Bigger than a dive and at a capacity of around 550, its pretty much your perfect mid-sized venue. It seemed to me that it was running late tonight as the show did not kick off at the scheduled time, which is pretty much par for the course at the Bowery Ballroom, so not a surprise the same happened here. This is fine, but Monday shows are typically really annoying for a lot of people and I am of the opinion that Monday shows should be more militaristic in keeping to a time schedule.

Opening on this evening was Ford & Lopatin (Joel Ford & Daniel Lopatin) along with Prefuse 73. The music they made can best be described as down-tempo, melody driven electronica with the nearest comparison I can find to be Röyksopp and Ratatat (both of whom I enjoy). However, it takes a lot to make electronic music like this work live outside of a dance club type of setting and this was really the case with this opener. While the music is perfectly listenable, I felt that we were just watching these guys bob their heads and play their records. A wholly uninspiring and lackluster performance commenced and we were all waiting with baited breath for the headliner. I really don’t like writing reviews of a negative nature and I did enjoy the music, but live performance such as this genre really needs a lot to come off with style and showmanship (i.e. DJ Shadow is terrific live), sadly I felt that this performance really lacked any of that and was merely time filler.

A pretty crappy shot of James Blake (hes on the right).

After a quick striking of the stage and refills on our drinks, it was time for James Blake to take the stage. I absolutely adore his record and from footage from live sessions that I’ve seen, I knew what to expect once he finally did. As this was his US debut, immediately his nervousness was apparent, but he was able to open the show deftly and without missing a beat backed by a live drummer and guitarist. “Wilhelm’s Scream”, which appeared far too early in the setlist as the 2nd song was extremely well done, but considering how that was the song most people got the most hyped for (along with Feist cover “Limit To Your Love”), it was played far too early.

As the show went on, it became apparent to me that I was underwhelmed. I loved Blake’s voice on this night and I found that his album-to-live replication was almost perfect. This is both a good and bad thing. While its nice to hear what you hear on record live, this matter of performance leaves very little room for showmanship and this lack can hurt the perception of the concertgoer. I felt that this was the case with the opener, and to a lesser extent, James Blake.

The show featured the majority of James’ debut self-titled LP, as well as a couple of b-sides and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”, which was exquisitely performed. His classical training was also on display which I was impressed by. The dude had the girls swooning needless to say.  The highlight of the show was the 2nd song he performed (Wilhelms Scream), and after that it was a case of waiting for the gig to be over for a lot of us that were in the same vicinity. I will say that once Blake gets his live chops up and some showmanship, he’s going to be one of the best performers around. He’s only 22.  For now, he’s presenting himself and his record and that’s pretty much it.

A deft performance by Blake, but a very lackluster evening on whole.

James Blake plays two more NYC area shows at the Bowery Ballroom and Le Poisson Rouge in early May. Both are currently sold out, but keep an eye out for more tickets being released if you are interested.

Prefuse 73/Ford & Lopatin – 4/10

James Blake – 6/10

On a completely unrelated note, SEA Thai Bistro, right up the street from the venue (114 N 6th St) was an excellent pre-gig meal and is recommended with no hesitation.

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