James Blake + Active Child live
Lincoln Hall | Chicago
by Joshua P. Ferguson
Originally published on the Time Out Chicago blog
There's a conversation that needs to be put to bed; let's get this out in the open: the music on James Blake's self-titled debut is not dubstep. Anyone still debating this fact has either never been to a dubstep show, or has never been to a James Blake show (or both). This past Sunday, the 22-year-old London singer/songwriter prodigy—who, for the record, does have a deep love of bass music—visited Chicago and gave us a taste of each, pulling double duty and performing live at Lincoln Hall with his recently constructed trio and then jumping into the DJ booth at Beauty Bar for a lively after-party DJ set.
At the Lincoln Hall show, Blake and opening act Active Child were greeted by a sold-out crowd, one eager to take in the lush, ethereal and relatively subdued sounds of both acts. Last time I was at a dubstep night, kids were spraying beer and moshing, and the music was booming out with such low-end gusto that I felt as if I had cotton balls in my ears the next day. This was certainly not the scene on Sunday.
Active Child, fronted by ex-Philadelphia choirboy Pat Grossi, was a perfect opening act. Its music is equal parts electro, chill-out and sweeping, baroque pop that instantly draws comparison to Florence and the Machine, Kate Bush, Joy Division and New Order. Grossi, who sings in a powerful falsetto, also spends a good amount of time behind a harp, which adds to the angelic quality of the trio's sound. Certain songs, like "When Your Love is Safe," have a dance floor thump that created the most upbeat moments of the entire evening, but even Active Child kept it pretty mellow before Blake took the stage.
Hearing Blake's music, especially live, it's obvious that he has spent a good deal of time with U.K. bass sounds. The rumble that came from the unassuming trio once it hit the stage may have been the biggest that has ever throbbed through Lincoln Hall. The bass was so intense at points it almost washed out the delicate keys, strummed guitar and drum taps. Still, not dubstep. The work of this classically trained musician sits more comfortably in between singer-songwriter folk and vintage African-American music. Songs like set opener "Unluck" hint at his electronic upbringing with bursts of bass static and dubstep's halftime meter, but his organ-like keyboard work and bluesy vocals make it so much more. On "Give Me My Month," the band sat out altogether, leaving the focus on Blake and his brilliant work on the keys. It was at this point, while looking down at the audience from Lincoln Hall's balcony, that I noticed how stoic the crowd was. You could hear a pin drop. Speaking with Blake after the show, he even commented, noting that the crowd was eerily quiet. It wasn't for lack of enjoyment; we were mesmerized.
Other highlights include the utterly hypnotic pairing "Lindisfarne I" and "Lindisfarne II," which along with crowd favorites "The Wilhelm Scream," "I Never Learnt to Share" and Feist cover "Limit (To Your Love)," represented the night's most folksy moments, brought even more to life with the live guitar that seems all the more prevalent in the songs when heard live. Dubstep fans who know Blake's earlier singles for labels like Hemlock and R&S still got a taste on "Klavierwerke," a song from one of his EPs that errs heavily on the dub side of dubstep but offered up a taste of that side of this multi-talented artist nonetheless.
In other news, James Blake just released a new video today. It's a cultish, odd friendship pact and it's set to "Lindisfarne I and II":