It is fair to say that downtown Vancouver was buzzing with avid music lovers on Sunday evening. Pearl Jam, Bon Iver, and James Blake were all sharing their music with devout followers and you could see the looks of anticipation on faces as you walked through the streets just as the sun was setting. James Blake’s long awaited performance at The Commodore sold out quickly. There was a general sense that everyone inside the venue knew where they were supposed to be. No one was dragged down last-minute; they had talked about the evening many times before. There has been a fast growing fan base since videos of James Blake began to circulate not long ago, and concert goers were expecting something special.
What I thought was most interesting about the dense crowd on Sunday night was the variety of characters in attendance. Blake touches his listeners in different ways, and while none of his songs are different enough to scare people off, they inarguably vary in style. His powerful, unique voice wraps easily around any melody and he layers harmonies over his own with ease (and a loop pedal). Blake took to the stage to a roar of excitement and began to play through his small roster of songs. Many broke from slow, ambient sounds in to loud, hard-hitting electronic sounds that had the crowd looking at their feet and moving their bodies in ways that can only be attributed to non-linear electronic music. Two others joined him on stage but seemed to only add gentle accents to his already full sound. The young musician seemed comfortable and calm on stage. At times, I wondered if his comfortable demeanor may have been interpreted by some as unappreciative. He said little between songs and his facial expression did not seem to vary greatly from one song to the next. His movements were smooth and his reactions to praise or jest were subtle. His calmness struck me and I thought of it for some time after. I realized that his manner reminded me of a professionally trained classical musician, on stage in an auditorium with a large orchestra behind him. This serenity was only shaken for a moment when he casually announced that it was his 23rd birthday, and the crowd began to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ without hesitation. He smiled and tried to shake it off with what almost felt like slight embarrassment.
After playing ‘Wilhelm Scream,’ James Blake left the stage for a short time and returned promptly for a solo piano rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You.’ He played and sang the song with true skill. Many people have said before that a good artist must learn the rules and then break them. James Blake seems to have achieved this feat to a jaw dropping degree. His voice was true to Joni Mitchell’s original vocal intent, as were his piano licks. But there was something different. The words trailed behind the piano chords and then caught up… then his hands would float above the keys for a few seconds before the game of cat and mouse would resume. People could sing along, but there was something about the way that he played that caused Sunday’s audience to lower their voices and carefully watch. He applies this same knowledge of how to break the rules to every song that he writes and plays. I think it is where his serenity comes from: he just knows that what he’s doing is working.
Watching James Blake play is a bit like watching a mathematician solve a complicated problem. The average person may look at the math equation with confusion and seem perplexed when witnessing it solved with ease. The mathematician sees something that most don’t. For him or her, the pieces fit. When James Blake mixes classical melodies with modern technology and a voice that could sing your grandmother to sleep, it just works. For him, the math equation is solvable. The rest of us just watch the delivery, understanding that an attempted explanation would be superfluous. Sometimes it’s best to sit back and shake your head slowly as you watch someone do something unimaginable. James Blake’s audience did just that on Sunday, and I think we all left feeling like we had witnessed something quite special