James Blake seems to have carved out a sonic territory all his own, mixing the oblique rhythms of dubstep with the emotion and melodicism of mainstream R&B. His 2010 trilogy of EPs established the young Brit as an inventive producer with a truly distinct sonic palette. In 2011, Blake released his self-titled debut to much critical fanfare, including a nomination for Britain’s Mercury Prize. Since then, he’s become one of the most buzzed-about stories of the year, and Sunday night’s sold-out performance at the Fonda displayed an American audience curious to see the hyped artist, yet somewhat confused by the sounds that came from the stage.
Blake’s music is melodic and subtly arranged yet brave in its ability to juxtapose pockets of silence with overwhelming bursts of sub bass and ambient noise. The speakers and ceiling rattled ceaselessly last night, while drums skittered through, chopped and distended, hiccupping to the phasing crunch of synthesizer and ambient sound. The lines “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me / but I don’t blame them,” repeated at set intervals, fed through multiple processors and harmonizing effects. Blake sat coolly at the center of the swell, the arched Music Box ceiling and old Hollywood decor offsetting the stark “newness” of this sound.
In the live setting Blake is joined by two auxiliary musicians: Ben Assister on percussion and Rob McAndrews on guitar and sampler. Though only a trio, the group is capable of creating dense layers of sound. Blake and his bandmates established a deliberate pacing early on that continued throughout the evening; grooves were built on simple keyboard lines and drum beats, then repeated for minutes on end. “Unluck,” a thoroughly abstract piece of soulful, minimalist pop, stood as one of the highlights, benefiting greatly from Assister’s deft rendering of the clicking, stop/start electronic beat.
Album standouts “Lindisfarne,” “The Wilhelm Scream” and Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” were played with care and nuance, each gaining emotional weight in the live setting. The sample-based “CMYK” was given an entirely new arrangement, stretching out beyond the six-minute mark and employing a varied percussion attack.
The audience remained attentive and respectful for these numbers, but seemed perplexed and self-aware during the quiet, piano-lead tracks. Blake employs silence as a means of musical composition, and the crowd was often made noticeably uncomfortable by this. Audience members routinely paced back and forth during these songs, talking and ordering drinks from the bar, oblivious to the performance. It seems that Blake’s fanbase has not yet solidified, and for now, he will have to deal with this kind of partially-disengaged audience.
After closing with “The Wilhelm Scream,” the band returned to debut a new song. The piece was a slow-paced ballad, driven by a reverberant, bell-sounding keyboard. In many respects, the song evoked the smooth, soft rock of Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest” — recontextualizing a sound that was thoroughly at the heart of the mainstream over two decades ago.