james-blake– THE RITZ, MANCHESTER –

James Blake. Not to be confused with the James family of bland, Blunt or Morrison. Blake is a producer and musician of incredible skill and flair. He crafts his songs from a rich array of sounds and electronic production techniques; with nods to bass, dub step, hip hop, R&B and soul. His sounds lurch from one genre to the next. When Bon Iver and Burial are uttered together in his list of influences, you can see why it’s hard to know what sound he might come up with next. His latest album Overgrown was released in April and is considered to be more polished and bold than his debut.

I am at the Ritz, standing amongst a sold-out post festival crowd, hanging on to the last vestiges of summer. Blake emerges stage left and sits upright at his keyboard, sequencer and piano: the figure of a relaxed, affable 25 year old.  Joining him on stage is a guitarist-cum-keyboardist and an utterly spectacular drummer. Their contributions will not be called on for every song, but offer bursts of sound throughout the set. They are a tight outfit.

First up is ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ from his first album which starts very simply, showcasing Blake’s vocal sampling and lone piano accompaniment. Slowly he’s cranking up his synths, teasing us by building the vibrations and volume before quietening down to drawn out chords. This is a first introduction to his fondness for chopping and changing tempos so quickly, it can catch you quite off guard.

He has a strong voice. Although it isn’t quite the vocal perfection of his contemporary, How To Dress Well, Blake’s warm tenor tones are straightforward expressions of reflection. Often he will sing his melody, sample it, cut it into pieces, distort it and layer it- turning it into another instrument for his overall sound. That he is able to do this live (and play the keyboard) is multitasking I have great respect for.

Next is ‘Voyeur’ from the new album. This is entirely different to the opener with some higher pitched repetitive snare drums, vocal repeat and piano. He brings it up, louder and louder to a big deep base reverb that your whole being embraces. The room explodes and he takes us to us rave-like ecstasy.  There’s no doubt he’s enjoying layering these sounds up and building them to bursting point, erupting them for the crowd to dance to.

He takes a breath to say a polite Hi and is met with heckles of love from the audience.

‘To The Last’ is another track from Overgrown. The piano tempo and melody doesn’t grab me and my mind wanders. I am underwhelmed by the vocals which start to become repetitive and where the melody just doesn’t emerge.

Then we have the album titled track ‘Overgrown’ . It has a more R&B feel to it but the melody and repeat vocals bore me. There is a quick switch to a faster beat but it’s very staccato. I’m struggling to find flow in the song to enjoy. The next couple of tracks wash over me and I confess I haven’t even noted down their titles. I’m worried that dreariness has set in for good, already nostalgic for ‘Voyeur’s’ excellent beats.

Brian Eno produced track, ‘Digital Lion’ brings me back. Again, mellow to start, but already emerging is a deep heavy bass-lead beat that builds and builds. The snare drum repetition is drawing me in. The wake up I needed and the crowd have started to move.  As Blake loses the vocals and the drummer launches into full throttle excellence, we are at one with the expanding base.

 And when ‘Limit To You Love’, a first album favourite kicks in, again with soft tenor vocals, all is immediately forgiven. Members of the crowd are choosing to sing-a-long. The sharp sudden bass steps up again, I am mesmerised. There is another undercurrent of deep base vibrations where he kicks off a dub step extension. The drummer is belting out some of the most extraordinary bass I’ve ever heard. The crowd are frenetic. This instantly redeemable fabulousness provides bone-juddering power. He carries this on for quite some time. I love every sweet second of it.

Dialling it down a little but in keeping with the momentum he pulls out ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. It is sublimely minimal, featuring subtle bubbling guitar sounds, while the keyboards gradually rise into dissonant, distorted crackles. And again the bass picks up and we are re-thrust into the dance flow.

There wasn’t really any need for the down-tempo encore, which numbed my high a little but he can do no wrong in my eyes now. Mostly fantastic.

James Blake Official | Facebook | Twitter | Youtube