Of all the artists to have been tipped for success this year, James Blake has arguably received most of the indie hype. The blogosphere has been going crazy over him and despite his album not yet being released, a leak has been circulating for weeks. Blake’s unique blend of sounds and textures separates him from the rest of the BBC’s Sound Of 2011 artists – he was runner-up to winner Jessie J.
His gigs are, at the moment, even more intriguing, not least to see whether his songs are as sparse and minimalistic live as they are on record. He’s still at a point where he’s getting into the feel of playing to an audience and his support slot for Magnetic Man at the Hospital Club, as part of the Mercury Prize Sessions, has the feel of a rehearsal. This is especially the case given the ‘TV studio’ feel of the room. Blake, who alternates between keys, grand piano and the many voice manipulation effects that are at his disposal, is flanked by a drummer and a guitarist who also takes care of extra sampler duties.
A polite crowd give their full attention to the three men onstage and are very silent as they are treated to a cuts from the debut LP. The Wilhelm Scream gradually builds as a wave of layered vocals and crackling synths wash over the room. In contrast, set opener Unluck is an old school slow groove brought up to date with a modern style and his cover of Feist‘s Limit To Your Love is a far more fragile and bassier affair than the original.
Yet given all the hype, there is something missing. It possibly has as much to do with the fact that the live band is currently a ‘beta’ version and that this gig isn’t so much a gig but a showcase. Even so, there isn’t anything here that suggests that this will be the music that dominates the mainstream in 2011. None of the songs, with perhaps the exception of the Feist cover, are made for radio in the slightest.
However, what Blake does conjure up is fascinating. No-one is doing anything similar – definitely not anyone else from the Sound Of 2011 list – and no-one else combines elements of soul, electronica and dubstep. His music has the potential to grow into something truly spellbinding, regardless of whether he breaks into the mainstream or not.
He also makes Magnetic Man, who perform a headline set shortly afterwards, look considerably outdated by comparison. Not even guest stars Ms Dynamite, Katy B and a string quartet can help. It’s just not as impressive musically, since it’s very hard to get excited when the three main protagonists are all merely operating Macbooks. It’s, in a nutshell, just so 2010.
By the time Blake’s short UK tour commences later on in the month he and his band might have found their rhythm. It might take them a bit longer. Either way, there are certainly glimmers of potential that are waiting to be fulfilled.