Review by Tara Sharma
It was as though The Colour In Anything was magically timed to match the length of my commute from Providence to Boston last Tuesday night, as I made my way to the James Blake concert I’d been ready to see for months. The final harmonies of “Meet You in the Maze” winded down the moment I found my spot in the line outside the House of Blues on Landsdowne street, waiting for the show to start.
The place was packed, and I found myself immediately skeptical when I remembered how quickly the tickets had sold out, how I had to scour resale in order to even find a spot. I remembered my brother telling me about the time he’d seen James Blake in a tiny bar in New York City a few years ago, where by the end of the night, he said he could basically recognize everyone there. The thought crossed my mind that maybe it was a mistake to see one of my favorite artists in a setting that could so easily feel so large and push the performer far away, that could so easily make such personal music feel impersonal. It’s a recurring fear I find myself having—that a live performance will somehow ruin a connection I have to a recording.
It’s a fear I am actively trying to fight, because when it comes down to it, it is a fear of the most human part of music: the live show, the real-time interaction of audience and artist, and all of its spontaneous and imperfect details. After this concert, I was reminded of the way that live music—especially live electronic music—can fully transcend recordings, in that it pushes into a whole new dimension of experience, one that is at once galactic, disorienting, and intensely intimate.
I found myself a solid window of view between two heads in the mezzanine, and as the opening hum of “Radio Silence” began to grow, that was it—I was fully in it for the next two hours, as Blake made his way almost completely through his most recent odyssey of an album: The Colour in Anything, released this past May. He sat at a grand piano on the right side of the stage, with his drummer in the middle, his keyboardist at left. It was clear he wasn’t looking for any kind of sensory distraction—he kept his stage within a small sphere of grey-blue light. With little to no spoken interruption (aside from a timid “Wow, thank you” every now and then), James Blake siphoned off the world and sunk into his keys and his lucid falsettos, at times keeping them barely at a whisper, bringing us all to lean in.
Furthermore, Blake was holding us all to remain almost perfectly still—which I felt myself doing, for the duration of the show. It was as though any movement would disrupt the balance of his performance that simultaneously felt fragile, deeply gentle, and almost overwhelmingly dark. A song like “Points,” with its bass and almost industrial, siren-like sound on loop, felt all-consuming of the room. It was loud, vivid, and close, bringing out a very visceral kind of fear. A memory of that performance could permanently haunt. Yet a song like “I Need A Forest Fire” managed to do exactly the opposite; I closed my eyes and was transported to a small, dimly-lit college dorm room, with Blake messing around on a midi-recorder at a laptop, singing shyly to a small group of his friends. It was a very easy image to conjure up—it seemed so clearly his place. And yet both kinds of performances (he consistently went back and forth, until he perfected a kind of gentle darkness) held me in stillness, in intense focus, an urgency to take in every note.
I can’t tell if it was a kind of shock—that this twenty-something, boyish, lanky kid could fill a room with a sound so otherworldly, unsettling, and precisely tender—but I did not want to move. He was doing something I’d never experienced before: he was making a large space seem very small, and a small voice seem very large.
“I have to use this thing called a looper, so uh, unless you want to hear yourself scream over and over again for the next two minutes, it’d be awesome if you could keep it down for this song.” We listened, laughing out of a little bit of embarrassment at the way the room had just excitedly sang along to “Retrograde” as though it was some uplifting pop song. He ended the show with an elegant performance of “Measurements,” leaving the audience in the softest way possible before quietly slipping offstage.
I wondered, in the days after the concert, about the way he felt the world. In his show he moved between emotions gracefully, trusting that all of them could be beautiful. He did not try to repress any of them. He could fill a room with all the rhythmic crashes of bass and synth, all the eeriness of his falsetto dissonance, all the melancholy of a repeating lyric, and when the song ended, leave the audience perfectly motionless. Perfectly still, with a feeling of alive-ness, of color, a feeling that yes, he was there.