There are two possible reactions to the suggestion of spending a Friday night in a small Salford church watching a prodigious, virtuoso acoustic guitarist perform a number of solo, instrumental pieces. Sure, it may sound a little on the arduous side to some. Indeed, more often than not, it would make my own blood run a little cold. But in the case of James Blackshaw, I am devoutly in the camp that gets hot under the collar at the prospect.
And so it is in the picturesque Sacred Trinity Church, packed full with a total of 50 or 60 people, that I await the unassuming and charmingly timid Londoner. Not in anticipation of a masterful yet cold realisation of 12-string prowess, but rather in confidence of a mesmerising and seductive set of escapist delirium.
For the uninitiated, Blackshaw is as technically gifted as they come, and has produced a string of celebrated albums over a ten-year period, before attaining a certain level of breakthrough with 2009’s magnificent ‘The Glass Bead Game’. His latest full-length, ‘Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death’ continues his impressive stretch, and unsurprisingly it is from this album that he draws most often tonight.
Whilst the subtle complexities of his compositions are an awesome prospect in and of themselves, it is the head-spinning, hypnotic dizziness that they induce as your brain strains to try to keep up with his playing that holds the key to Blackshaw’s live experience. New songs ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ and ‘A Momentary Taste Of Being’ are perfect examples of this – after a minute or two, you may find yourself lulled into a secluded, dreamlike cocoon, suddenly quite unaware of the live wizardry before you. It’s a strange paradox that allows such a talented performance to eclipse itself – the more he plays, the less aware of him you become.
He is, of course, in full control of the situation. And just as gently as he eases you under his spell, he can tease you out of it. Unexpected directions are explored when appropriate, spontaneity is the key. As the new album’s title track ascends into the nooks of the beautiful church hall, Blackshaw pushes and pulls you in and out as dexterously as the accordion that had earlier been played by the curiously unremarkable support act.
And for those of us who first fell for the man’s genius with the aforementioned LP, ‘The Glass Bead Game’, the appearance of standout track ‘Cross’ to close out the set is manner from heaven. The cyclical swirling of this most enchanting of songs could masquerade as a wordless mantra from an ancient ritual, stirring as it does a mental restlessness in its listener. As a gig, it’s a strangely individual experience, drawing you further into yourself than encouraging a collective celebration. But perhaps we could all use a little introspection every once in a while.