Centuries of transformations haven’t disguised the fact that St Pancras Old Church is, as its name would suggest, really, really old. Covered with ancient depictions of the crucifixion and other religious iconography, it’s an unlikely venue for an electronic gig in 2011. Every time the subwoofers shake, members of the audience glance nervously around, certain that this will be the last night of the church’s (and their own) existence.
“There are bits of ceiling on my keyboard. True story,” James Blake laughs shyly, after a particularly bass-heavy song.
The audience interaction is minimal, though this is hardly surprising – Blake announces that this is only the second show they’ve really played as a band. It is also only a minor flaw in what is an impressive, albeit short set.
Joined by a drummer and a sampler/guitar player, the outstanding thing about Blake’s live show is, oddly enough, just how live it is. This may sound like a given, but seeing this skilled young man at the keys playing everything from scratch is an awe-inspiring sight. Though his two bandmates provide valuable noise in the glitchier moments, this is still very much the James Blake show.
As pretty much every review of his self-titled debut will tell you, Blake is not an artist you can pigeonhole. While some of his songs have a much grimier, dubstep influence, he reverts to straight up piano and vocals for tracks like ‘Give Me My Month’. In a way, it’s here he truly exhibits his talent, allowing his majestic voice to prove its full potential without the vocal manipulation of his more electronic songs.
Performing ‘I Never Learnt To Share’, Blake loops his haunting vocals (“My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them.”) and layers them through a vocoder, before adding a whole load of synth and brain-melting electronic drums. It cannot be overstated how incredibly rich and full this sounds live.
As the excellent support band Cloud Boat (sort of like a more concise Godspeed You! Black Emperor with a drum machine and a singer) remark, it’s an utterly surreal evening. Minimal lighting provided by a handful of LEDs and a whole bunch of candles only increase the intimacy of this tiny venue. The audience sit silently and respectfully through each song, as if this was a genuine church service. When Blake pauses halfway through one track, the church bells can be heard ringing ten, prompting laughter from the band and fans alike.
The main set ends with an intense version of Blake’s next single, ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. It is hard to convey how much a song can differ from record to a live situation; seeing truly is believing. Blake remains on stage for one last solo song – a stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You’. Without delving into the church/religious experience clichés, this really is something special.
Whether the album does anything for you or not (and this writer remains unconvinced), the James Blake live experience is something best indulged while Blake is still able to play venues so small and unique. How he will transfer to more conventional arenas is something only time will tell, but on tonight’s phenomenal form this may end up ranking amongst the best gigs of this year.