What do you think the show will be like?
A friend asked, as we settled into our seats at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel, a seated, Gothic-style venue from the late 1920s that the hipster hotel had meticulously restored when they bought it. Straightfaced, I predicted possible guest stars (as modern rap show goers often do) hypothesizing that Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, and Vince Staples would roll through. And though at any other James Blake show those appearances are entirely possible — the English pianist and songwriter has collaborated with all of them and some of the other biggest names in the hip-hop world including Frank Ocean, Beyonce, Jay-Z — for this solo piano trek, his second tour of the year (the first, a traditional string of shows behind his new album Assume Form), the hour-long set is done in a remarkably different style. Purposefully so.
The only guest stars to take the stage were comedian opener and friend Neal Brennan, who batted a thousand making mincemeat of woke particulars but still struggled to receive the appropriate laughter from a non-comedy crowd, and Blake’s recent romantic partner, and British actress, model, and activist Jameela Jamil, who introduced both Brennan and Blake himself as de facto emcee for the night; James forgot to book one, she deadpanned, to scattered laughter, though the audience was delighted to see her. But the real delight began when Blake sat at a baby grand to play his meticulously produced gems as stripped back piano-man tunes, interjecting between songs to offer his thoughts and some background on each song.
The first thing to be done away with was the breathless attention of the crowd, who, when they weren’t shuffling in and out of their seats more than any other seated show I’ve ever attended, sat rapt and silent through the first handful of songs, including the title track of Blake’s brilliant and still vastly underrated 2016 album, The Colour In Anything. He wasn’t, Blake insisted, a serious sort of artist who insisted on an intense atmosphere, and even wanted people to sing along, if they knew the words and felt the urge. Over the next few songs, many audience members agreed, often to the chagrin of their near neighbors — no one present, or perhaps on the planet, has a voice that rivals Blake’s.
When he would wind into the lyricless vocal runs that have often been his calling card, the tonality of his voice, live and without the veil of production, is so perfect it sometimes sounded like a violin, not a human voice. It’s no wonder, then, that musical giants like Frank Ocean and Shawn Carter have sought him out, not just for this, but his brilliant songwriting mind, as displayed on the spare cover of his own best-known song, “Retrograde,” and also within the careful analysis he applied to covers like Bill Withers’ “Hope She’ll Be Happier.”
Blake’s intimate, heartfelt commentary and storytelling came so naturally, and was so unexpectedly funny, I’m surprised he hasn’t been tapped for the modern podcast or radio show beat. The show evoked the same feel as Jackson Browne’s Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 (and Vol. 2, released three years later), though that album is a collection of live performances and not a whole cloth solo show like this tour offers (which might, frankly, make it even better). Even brief phrases describing newer material, like a pointed admission “I’ll Come Too” was written about “being highly desperate,” were more illuminating than most current between-song banter, which can often tread dark or cynical.
It’s a bit fascinating, in 2019, to remember that when Blake began to break out in 2010, using glitchy, looped production anchored by piano and synth, and combining singer-songwriter vocals and tempos with beats was wildly inventive — at least to the audiences who latched onto him. Avoiding lesser Blake knockoffs is nearly a full-time job for a music critic in 2019, but even as the offspring of James and his near contemporary, Justin Vernon, abound, both men continue to push their imaginative ideals to the limit on new projects that stand out even in the packed, hip-hop-focused field of albums released this year.
And both men have pushed back on the bounds of masculinity as they rose to prominence; Vernon’s frequently sold-out, arena-sized Bon Iver shows toured with his organization, 2abillion, that seeks to “end gender inequality, domestic violence, and sexual abuse,” a rare, specific show of support from a powerful white man in the still recalcitrant, sexist music industry. For his part, last year Blake pushed back on Pitchfork’s filing his music under the label “sad boy,” as furthering the stigma around men “expressing themselves emotionally.” At the show last night, too, Blake shared that he had long fallen into the habit of only writing songs when he was in a place of utter sadness, and it was only years of figuring out his brain, and entering into a healthy relationship, that he began to even attempt to create songs when in a better, happier place.
Still, there is a certain sheen to the sad songs that Blake is now incredibly happy to sing at a piano while touring the world with the love of his life, and shimmering covers of Billie Eilish’s “When The Party’s Over,” or Don McLean’s “(Vincent) Starry Starry Night” both brought me, and most of the crowd, to tears. But a new sense of joy was always there, too, like when he burst into a Blake-ian rendition of Aqua’s cult-y, sardonic classic “Barbie Girl,” or the new burst of emotion behind an older track, “Love Me In Whatever Way.”
The demanded encore of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” might encapsulate the best of James Blake — a love song with full understanding of the pain a drink that deep will guarantee. But whether it was through the ostensible lens of the happy or sad binary, Blake brought a reverence to all the covers he performed, and a thoughtfulness to his own music that was even more apparent than normal, given the stripped-back nature of the show.
Personally, he seemed, perhaps the most moved when performing the buried refrain of Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed” — a song he helped create:
“This love will keep us through blinding of the eyes,
Silence in the ears,
Darkness of the mind.”
And to that conclusion, I have no choice but to wish him godspeed.