SXSW Day 2: James Blake's Bass Shakes the Earth, Confounds Labeling

Categories: SXSW
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James Blake at Stubb's in Austin.
British electronic artist James Blake played one of the most anticipated sets of the first day of South By Southwest yesterday. But two songs into his evening show at Stubb's, many were still struggling to describe his mesh of slow, thunderous bass hits and melancholy vocals. "What's he supposed to be sounding like? Soul?" asked one graybearded badgeholder near me. Several nearby heads nodded with less than total confidence. 

Indeed, Blake's singing, on songs like "Limit To Your Love," a Feist cover, and "I Never Learnt To Share," recalled the heartbroken neighing of, say, Al Green, or even R. Kelly -- except much whiter. But to confound things, Blake's songs also delivered punishing doses of bass. These jarring booms, trickles, and stutters drove concerned frowns onto the faces of some near the speakers (faces which, it must be said, looked like they had never seen the inside of a dubstep show, or anything else that might prepare them for this kind of massive low-end).

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James Blake
These sporadic low frequencies were huge -- Earth-shaking, all-consuming. They seemed to challenge the integrity of the rather large sound system reproducing them. Blake wielded these electronic groans like just another medium for emotion, a weighty counterpart to all the empty space in his tentative arrangements. Above the bass and tiptoeing keyboard lines, Blake's whiny voice fluttered in lyrical cycles, laden with vocal effects that expanded and contracted as his loss-burdened songs slowly wound themselves into climaxes and receded. ("My brother and my sister don't speak to me/ But I don't blame them," goes one especially indelible, frequently repeated line from "I Never Learnt To Share.")

Seated behind two keyboards, with a drummer playing electronic triggers and another band member contributing whispers of guitar, Blake's set didn't provide much to look at. Apart from the moments of bass oblivion, it didn't seize one's attention, either. But these ears found something alluring in Blake's soft-spoken invitations to be overwhelmed by mournful highs and shuddering lows. Even if there isn't yet an easy name for them.

Of course, Blake's sudden stardom -- he's been so praised that his San Francisco show on May 22 sold out extremely quickly -- isn't without its skeptics: I spoke with several yesterday who find his music overhyped and uninteresting. Much later in the night, Cults member Brian Oblivion asked the crowd what the best set of the day had been. A few enthusiastic shouts of "James Blake!" rang out. "I can't get into that shit," Oblivion shot back, shaking his head.

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