James Blake plays the first of his two sold out Thekla shows tonight but, rather disappointingly, to an audience who are far more concerned with the idea of being there than paying any great attention to what’s going on.
From the moment Blake and his band step on-stage, there is a constant running commentary from the kids behind, conversations ranging from the dreaminess of his hair to debates on U2′s ‘Vertigo’. Rewind to last summer’s DJ sets and this indifference is fine, but with songs like ‘Give Me My Month’, where Blake croons “I never told her where the fear comes from”, over a solemn piano accompaniment, you remove almost the entire appeal of the performance.
It is this, and not for want of trying, that the band (he plays with a drummer and guitarist/sample-initiator) is underwhelming. Blake is consistently likeable – a charming front-man – and his voice is even more endearing live than on record, especially when his eyebrows take the shape of the high melodies he sometimes strains to reach. And whilst the use of hi-hats, a snare and cymbals alongside the electric drum kit is a strange one – perhaps a combination that works better in larger venues where the sounds of the acoustic drums in their unmiced state would not be heard – it is hard to pick any other faults with the sound. ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, with its droney synths and palm-muted electric guitar, is perhaps the best example of the depth of sound the three men are able to create.
Whether through necessity due to volume, or familiarity with the songs, there is an almost embarrassing shift in the mood when the band play songs like ‘Limit to Your Love’ and ‘I Never Learnt to Share’. The beer cups on the stage start migrating towards the edge, every ribcage in the room suddenly filled with the warm rumbles of sub-bass and, if only for a few minutes, the talking stops and all heads turn forwards. These are the highlights of the show, not necessarily musically, but because during these moments there is no difference between the intentions of the band and the noises hitting our ears. It is surely an observation that has been made too many times in the month since his debut album was released, but the shift from DJing late night dance tents to playing piano-led ballads, combined with a meteoric rise in popularity, has led to confusion within his audience that leaves no parties satisfied.
Whether it is Blake’s responsibility or his fans’ to adapt, what remains obvious here is that there is a large gap between the artist and our various expectations, a gap that could easily turn former fans cold.