“We’ve got one last tune,” James Blake told the crowd at Music Hall of Williamsburg as he wrapped up his first American set in months, a pronouncement that was met not with the typical resigned acceptance but with loud (friendly) boos. Blake’s presence after just a three month absence made the crowd hesitate to let him leave again. “Well as luck would have it,” responded Blake to the forlorn fans, “that was the reaction I was hoping for.”
Given the tightness of the set he had just played, any other reaction would be inconceivable. After kicking things off with one of his oldest tracks, “Air and Lack Thereof”, Blake wove through old and new material, holding the audience in a trance for well over an hour, save for the occasional spontaneous bursts of applause and hollers. Crowd favorites “CMYK”, “Lindisfarne I and II”, and “I Never Learnt To Share” were clear standouts, although the crowd seemed nearly as excited to get a taste of what’s to come from Blake in the future, focused with rapt attention on the five new tracks he scattered throughout the set.
“Now might be a good time to tell you that the album’s nearly done, the new one. This is the first time we’ve played any of it to anybody in America,” said Blake, who admitted to being nervous. He needn’t have been. The new tracks – which Blake says haven’t been officially named yet, but were listed on the setlist as “We Are Going Down T’Pub”, “Our Love Comes Back”, “Every Day I Ran”, and “Overgrown” – were stunning, continuing the trend of increasing Blake’s vocal focus and even hinting at traces of R&B. The mix of fresh tunes and favorites was a brilliant balance. If set-closer “The Wilhelm Scream” had been the last song of the night, it would have been an impeccable show.
As it turns out, the best was yet to come.
Following the encore break, Blake, accompanied by drummer Ben Assiter and guitarist Rob McAndrews, whipped up the best version of “Anti-War Dub” I’ve seen the trio perform. Often a sprawling track, tonight it was so tight it could hold water. When the guys working the soundboard are dancing, you know you’re doing something right.
After “Anti-War”, came the surprise couplet of the evening. First, Blake played new song “Retrograde”, an absolutely massive tune that seemed to bring together everything he had played up to that point. It was the type of song that, when you hear it for the first time, puts a huge smile on your face, knowing you’re going to get to hear it with fresh ears someday down the road. If this is the type of stuff on Blake’s new album, he’ll run 2013.
And then, to finish things off, Blake (sans Assiter and McAndrews) cooled things off with his quasi-iconic Joni Mitchell cover, “A Case Of You”, dedicated to “the man with the highest voice,” who had requested it loudly from the balcony prior to the encore. It was the perfect comedown from the night’s adrenaline rush, a sing-along ballad tacked onto the end of the setlist that brought the crowd together. Stunning.
“That I can be away a year and come back and see this,” said Blake to the New York crowd, “is amazing.” The crowd agreed.
Gallery by Chris Barth
Air and Lack Thereof
I Never Learnt To Share
We Are Going Down T’Pub
Lindisfarne I and II
Limit To Your Love
Our Love Comes Back
Every Day I Ran
The Wilhelm Scream
A Case Of You