What do artists owe us, and what should we, as as an audience, expect at a show? When does early success as a musician become a burden? I went into the James Blake show at The Anthem on Thursday night grappling with those questions.
I had seen James Blake live on two previous occasions, at the 9:30 Club in November of 2013 and at The Lincoln Theatre in June of 2014. The English songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s early records were heartfelt interpretations of soul, post-dubstep, and experimental electronic music of the early 2010s, and his accolades are well-earned and richly deserved. Given that both shows were part of the same tour cycle promoting his second album, the critically acclaimed Overgrown, it wasn’t surprising that they were similar: emotionally charged, melody-driven, and somewhat subdued. The show at the Lincoln was seated, and it took until halfway through the set – and a sheepish request from the artist – for the majority of the audience to stand up and dance. Blake’s talent has always been apparent, and his earliest records experimented with sound and rhythm in really interesting ways, but they always felt like albums that were ideally created for individual listening. The subtleties and anguish in the proto-footwork beats of the CMYK EP or in lyrics like “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, and I don’t blame them” (from “I Never Learned to Share”) never struck me as being built for mass consumption. These were outstanding albums that translated to somewhat awkward live experiences. It was apparent from the outset of Thursday night’s show that things would be different this time around.
The sold out show at The Anthem was also a seated event, at least nominally. The performance opened with “Assume Form,” the title track off of Blake’s eponymous release from earlier this year – a sleepy, piano driven tune that generally captures the spirit of the album. Fortunately for us, Blake followed up immediately with “Life Round Here,” a major bop with a great synth driven run that got a large portion of the crowd up and dancing (by which I mean black folks got the party started). After finishing the track, Blake once again urged the crowd to stand up – lessons learned from his last show in the District almost five years ago. They’d remain on their feet for the rest of the show, one that pulled mostly from the latest album and interspersed some of his big early hits, but rearranged most songs into tracks you wanted to move to.
It’s worth pointing out the demographic shift at this show in comparison to the previous two. Whether a product of the increased venue capacity – The Anthem is five times larger than either the 9:30 Club or The Lincoln Theatre – or due to the fact that James Blake has collaborated substantively with artists such as Beyoncé, Travis Scott, Rosalía, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and André 3000 over the last few years, there were many more people of color present on Thursday than in 2014. If those previous shows could derisively fit under the umbrella of PBR&B, this was Blake’s reminder to all of us that he’s more than just music for sad white boys.
As you might have gathered from this review, I didn’t love Assume Form as a record. I didn’t think it’s a bad album – simply a boring one. Is this a fair assessment? Maybe not; many people whose opinions I respect have told me how much they enjoy it, and how they’ve been listening to it non-stop since it was released. However, heavy is the head that wears the crown, and my expectations of a new James Blake were (perhaps unreasonably) higher than what we received. He’s an artist who had access to the entire color palette to express his feelings about something as momentous as falling in love and chose to use just brown and blue – it gets the message across, but it all bleeds into a murky and drab sonic mush. However, I have to recognize that unlike his previous albums, this one seems meant for the live stage. What failed to grip me on headphones or on a home stereo system was transformed into a compelling audiovisual experience when accompanied by clever lighting and the collective energy of several thousand people dancing with abandon. Although I still don’t have clear answers to the questions I walked in with, I was reminded of how music remains a great unifying social force, one that is ultimately best enjoyed in a communal setting.