As James Blake finally opened his mouth to sing after the slow, dub build of “Air And Lack Thereof” at the Ogden Theatre on Sunday, it seemed odd that Rusko had played two nights in the same club earlier this month. Blake and Rusko, two dubstep producers from England — who theoretically should have very similar music and fans, couldn’t be further apart. And when Blake, backed by a live drummer and another multi-instrumentalist, cooed the first lines of “I Never Learnt To Share” in his striking falsetto, it was clear he’s bringing something new to this electronic genre — humanity.
Blake has long discredited artists like Rusko and Skrillex as pandering to a “frat boy market” that rewards “machoism.” And this lithe, modestly dressed figure, hunched behind what must have been $8,000 of equipment, juxtaposed complex atmospheres of imploding bass with a fragile singer-songwriter persona. Blake’s is an electronic show without any of the tired electronic tropes. There’s no single person on a pedestal behind a computer pumping his fist in unison with the crowd. He sat on the right side of the stage working sometimes three instruments at once, while the crowd analyzed. In fact the crowd rarely danced at all. This was an electronic show that rewarded deep listening rather than getting caught up in a four-to-the-floor beat.
The trio — old friends from school, as the charming Blake said between songs — picked through tracks from the producer’s two studio albums. In the aforementioned “I Never Learnt To Share,” Blake busied himself with looping three of his own vocal lines while playing his keyboard. This was coupled with the impressive, mathematical drummer churning out beats on a mix of beat pads and a drum kit. Meanwhile, a raging synth built to engulf the singer and his keyboard into a digital tomb. On “Lindisfarne I” the light focused on Blake for what was nearly a singer-songwriter moment if it weren’t for his electronic tricks. Masked by auto-tune, it’s painfully obvious that Blake has the singing chops to support his own voice, but his tendencies as a producer hide this talent in a robotic stylistic effect.
But the one question going into Sunday night’s show was how would an artist whose music is bred for headphones transition to a live setting? It was fantastic to see three musicians performing such obsessively-produced songs live on stage. On the warbling cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love,” drummer Ben Assiter was able to jump into the song’s jazzy breakdown while holding to Blake’s looped vocals. The three musicians made for something compelling to watch unfold onstage, but human error is beholden to the exactness of computers. A misplaced vocal loop put a tiny snag in “Retrograde” and the intricacies of “Unluck” became muddled in Blake’s trademark subbass.
As with Blake’s origins as a dubstep producer, and his obvious qualms with the genre as a whole, the theme of his music is the balancing of two identities. One is his reaching for feeling in music, with his soulful almost tortured vocals as he asked for pathos on “Our Love Comes Back.” This song had Blake’s unmanipulated, choir boy voice accompanied by nothing but piano, with an R&B feel that prompted an audience member to yell “That’s some D‘Angelo shit.” Blake’s other identity is a studio and production wizard, whose goal is to crush the listener with synth patches. Where on record, he’s able to blend the gap between dubstep producer and singer-songwriter, at times in his live show, the two seemed independent of one another.
Amid this personal turmoil, Blake stepped out on stage for his encore by himself and did something an artist like Rusko would never do. He sang, bearing his soul in a stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You.” So is it possible for these two ideas to reside in the same genre and for the fans to approve? Based off of some of the breathing room in the Ogden Theatre on Sunday, audiences might not be comfortable with humanity in their dubstep, but Blake is trying his hardest to change that.
Melissa Hirsch is a Denver-based photographer and a new contributor to Reverb.