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all words: Hotung Gewirz
all photos: Shauna Alexander

I have found the perfect job for the newly retired Hank Williams Jr. Instead of making televised appearances before Monday night NFL games and unleashing his siren ode to football preparedness, he can follow the young, cocksure James Blake across the globe, appear before the sold out crowds, and bellow, “ARE YOU READY FOR EMOTIONS!?”

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While the audience and pay might be slightly smaller, his new gig will offer excellent job security – as the ravenous overstuffed twentysomething audience at the 9:30 club will surely agree – and he’ll get to do what he loves most: aggressively state the aggressively obvious.  Because just as sure as Monday night heralds the snap of the pigskin and the push of the product, the James Blake show guarantees the gush of emotion, warbly and isolated, but pure as the driven snow.
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The Limey Blake’s success is contingent in no small part on his ability to form a definable aesthetic.  Whether he’s playing solo piano arrangements and singing in broken, Antonyesque plaintive yowls to lost lovers or pitching his voice up against a pastiche of dancehall drums, echoey guitar, and harsh synthetic tones, every song fits comfortably in the catalog. No matter how different the songs may look on paper (at a glance – Track 1: upright piano and voice… Track 3: thunderous 808 kick, reggae snares, and synth sweeps… Track 11: hihat and Kelis samples), they are unmistakeably Blake. Contrast this with the interminable sameness of the hip young dubsteppers on display at this year’s Freefest, which featured no fewer than four laptoptronica acts that wouldn’t pass the DeadMauFive Challenge.*

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Blake ran through a broad smattering of material from this year’s James Blake and last year’s twin EP releases.  Throughout the set, he was sturdy, confident, and professional, imbuing his live performance with the same haunting isolation found in spades on his recorded material.  He was joined onstage by a guitar/ sampler player who was mainly responsible for atmospherics and an unflappable drummer who wrenched his hihat and sampled snare for every bit of percussive expression Blake’s tightly-constructed songs would allow. Watching him play drums was like watching the army’s best explosives expert coolly and swiftly defuse a series of bombs in front of a live crowd without once breaking a sweat or seeking recognition.
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Missing from the stage – thank God – were Blake’s laptop and sequencer.**  All sounds were live, tight, and delivered with the precision and professional detachment of a trained neurosurgeon. This stoic approach has it’s pros and cons.  The Limey Blake never once stood from his perch at the keyboards and never once exhibited any signs of Rocking Out; as a result, the evening took the air of Serious Art made by Serious People for the enjoyment of Serious Music Appreciators – during which time, a block down the road at DC9, local bros Deleted Scenes were doing basically the opposite and looking pretty happy about it. Two guys – who looked to be either really early or really late for the next 311 show at 9:30 – approached me while I was getting a beer and vocally lamented the aura of rarefied air at the club.  “Dude, some of these songs are jammin, and NO ONE IS DANCING.” “I got in trouble at the front of the crowd because I was DANCING.” “This CROWD SUCKS.”
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There but for the grace of Blake’s sonic perfection go I.

Highlights:

  • That Kelis sample on “CMYK” might be old(ish), but it is still murderously good
  • The girls on the balcony shouting “WE LOVE YOU BLAKE” (why not James??) during “Limit to your Love” and that song’s protracted dub (not dubstep, dub) coda.
  • Wilhelm Scream

Lowlight:

  • Feeling like I was inside of Lil Jon’s trunk during “To Care Like You”
* Dubstep creators, you too can take the The DeadMauFive Challenge in the comfort of your own home!  All you have to do is strap on a blindfold and pull up a playlist made of roughly ½ your music and ½ DeadMauFive music.  If you can’t tell the difference, you’ve failed The DeadMauFive challenge.
** Gear nerds will know that there is a fine distinction between having a sampler on stage and using it to summon live sounds (which Blake did), and relying on a sampler to play rhythmic or melodic sequences and loops (which Blake did not).  For a further discussion, see LCD Soundsystem.
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