Features | Concerts

James Blake / Nite Jewel

By Andrew Hall | 2 June 2011

The privilege of being able to say “I was there” is a far better motivator than it ought to be. In my case, I admit to being guilty of wanting to be able to say “I saw James Blake play to 300 people once,” as if his having a long and storied career is somehow already guaranteed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other people in the room for the same reason. I begin with this admission because beyond some silly “bragging” rights, of sorts—and the fact that the show was at the Tractor Tavern, my favorite place in the city to see music—there wasn’t much compelling me to attend Blake’s debut Seattle performance. I have yet to learn to love his eponymous debut LP, which to these ears still sounds like a collection of a very talented young producer’s sketches for piano and voice masquerading as an accomplished record, Antony Hegarty and Bon Iver reference points not yet stitched into anything as structurally cohesive as its sole cover, “Limit To Your Love,” or as thrilling as the material on his previous singles and EPs.

Before we proceed, however, there’s something else that needs to be said: either being in a functional space makes a world of difference or Nite Jewel has improved greatly as a band in the last year. Unlike their show at Los Angeles’ cavernous Echoplex, where frontwoman Ramona Gonzalez’ melodies were disarmingly strange and couples necked between pillars while the members of Kisses blasted Justin Bieber’s “Baby” between sets, Gonzalez now projects herself and her new songs with the utmost confidence, and they look and sound worlds better for it. The set consisted almost entirely of new material with one or two songs from Good Evening (2009) thrown in—currently only one song, “It Goes Through Your Head,” is available in recorded form—and they sounded as if they were on the way to realizing totally the promise of everything she’s done up to this point, reigning in her eccentricities without forgoing their charm. As a four-piece the ensemble sounded absolutely locked-in, and Gonzalez’s dance-pop, for the first time, actually came across as danceable.

And they weren’t the only pleasant surprise of the evening: James Blake was far better than I expected. The three-piece chose a fairly unconventional setup to work with—Blake operated a very expensive-looking synthesizer and a very good-sounding digital piano, as well as a looping unit and a device for vocal effects, while Ben Assiter played primarily digital percussion and Rob McAndrews added guitar flourishes and triggered samples. By choosing to largely do away with backing tracks, they made Blake’s recent recordings sound much warmer, and the improvement in audio quality, as well as the tastefully loud-but-not-that-loud mix, did a huge amount to sell me on songs I’d been less than enthused with.

This was fortunate, as the set, save for a moody, texturally gorgeous reworking of Klavierwerke‘s (2010) title track, did in fact keep strictly to material in the style of James Blake. Heads nodded appropriately when McAndrews hit the button to trigger massive sub-bass as necessary, proving conclusively that the impulsive response to low-end, wobble, or what-have-you is essentially the same catharsis no matter its origin.

If nothing else, Blake’s performance managed to achieve two things that his record (and EPs) don’t. The first was simply a virtue of his ensemble performance, which allowed for deviation and improvisation within extremely tight song structures. This drew out the menace in “Klavierwerke” and “Tep and the Logic,” but also let “Limit To Your Love” transform from dubstep to straight dub via an extended outro, which both helped extend the set to a passable 40-45 minutes and served as one of maybe two moments in which Assiter used the cymbals and snare drum in front of him.

Second, live performance gives Blake an outlet to prove himself as a jazz pianist. I caught myself on more than a few occasions watching his hands as they sculpted his fragmented synthesizer and piano leads, which look far more complicated than they sound. He closed his set with a new song played solo, unadorned by heavy vocal processing, loops, wobble, or jittering percussion, and if anything demonstrated his potential longevity, it was this. Only Blake really knows where he’s going next, but I do hope—considering how little each of his releases so far have resembled each other—he continues to move in new directions. In the meantime, however, I get to say “I was there,” and given that he’ll be playing to audiences five times this soon, it’s safe to assume that someone somewhere will be marginally interested in asking me about it when I say so.