For those of us that like to write about music, artists like James Blake are a lot of fun. They’re distinct, atmospheric and invoke a lot of easy descriptions. For the young electronic singer-songwriter, you’ll always see a lot of nocturnal words and dark colors employed to describe his sound. You would think reviewers were describing a cave, or a cemetery.
One of the things I love about Los Angeles is Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the concert venue. The artists seem to love it, too. When someone comes to town to play to these famous tombstones, I’ll inevitably see a wide shot of it on their instagram. If I actually go see them, they’ll always comment on the cemetery’s beauty, and they sound like they mean it more than when they say it at their 20th art deco theater.
But Hollywood Forever really shines when it has the right act booked. Someone whose mood and theme line right up with the weird, morbid luxury of the Hollywood dead: The xx, Sigur Ros, The Weeknd. Artists that work mostly with shadows and careful points of light. James Blake at Hollywood Forever Cemetery seemed like a no brainer, and on Wednesday, October 23, 2013, the two finally met.
What you should know about going to a concert here is that you can bring wine, beer, snacks, and a blanket to sit on. For that alone it trumps the Hollywood Bowl as a prestige venue. But it’s probably best if you join the standing crowd in front of the stage. If you resign yourself to picnicking, your view is almost certainly going to be blocked by the people on their feet.
This presents a strange experience because standing calls for dancing and James Blake, for all his atmospheric dubstep and occasional rave build up, is not a guy you can dance to. Even his most rhythmic and wonderful tracks, like the fan-favorite “CMYK,” are not bangers with a reliable BPM to bob to. Everyone at the show would simply surrender to the music and move in whatever way his deep voice, thunderous bass and droning ambience compelled them to. Mostly this took the form of a zombie shuffle. It must have looked silly to the helicopters in the sky, but it was what felt right.
Set against Hollywood’s impossibly bright, light-polluted night sky, it took on the feel of a festival performance. It was familiar, as the first time I saw Blake was also outdoors at FYF 2012. It’s great for the open air. The way he translates his desolate isolation chamber style into a live setting is to play the quiet really loudly. Think of a whisper recording turned up to 11 — and then break the knob off. The buzzy bass synths that underline so many of his songs can be played at volumes far exceeding logic, and the result is that you can feel it resonate in your ribs. They aren’t bass drops in the dance music mode, they’re subtler, underground. They slide down more than drop.
On a song like “Retrograde,” where Blake showing off the silkiness of his Michael McDonald-esque voice, the sonic envelope is something you have to feel in person. The song takes new shape as the slowly building synth grows in physical intensity, creating an almost euphoric atmosphere every time he exclaims “Suddenly I’m hit!”
Because he plays so often with low notes, the high notes of his piano and his voice are crisp and smooth as they travel through cold air. A side effect of this sound design is that you can have a normal volume conversation over his performance. You’ll hear most everything just fine. Not that you’d want to talk over him, but you will end up hearing everyone else’s smallest noise. A guy next to me let out a “uuuggghhh” — the noise you make when you’ve just eaten too much and you can feel it in your belly. The entire crowd turned to look at him.
This also makes sing-a-longs a detriment. I normally love a crowd that sings, it’s the ultimate form of total devotion and participation, but on particularly intimate music it can feel like an obstacle. On a song that simply feels like hallowed ground, such as the loop-machine tour de force “Measurements,” you don’t want to hear anyone but Blake singing. His songs simply don’t lend themselves to groups, and the groups have to learn this as the night goes on.
There were a lot of highlights. The song that broke him through, a cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” proved to be a monster live. That helicopter bass effect is an onslaught and you could feel the giddy anticipation in the lead up. The pained “I Never Learnt To Share” is a rollercoaster ride where the last 3rd is all a dive. When it got to the “dance music part,” it was like the culmination of the entire evening as he played into an extended techno music instrumental. It was an eruption, but short lived, as he brought us back down to settle like dust on his quieter ballads.
That meant his cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You,” a simple and stellar ballad that had more than a few girls fawning. It’s a showcase of melisma that people try to imitate these days with autotune, which is fine, but the analog version is stunning.
To end the night, (before the encore, which was the aforementioned “Measurements”) he chose “Wilhelm’s Scream,” still his best song. It’s an amazing, intricate tune built on the foundation of an ambient drone and a subtle beat with different percussion hits that seem miles apart. The last minute & a half of the song is one of my favorite comedowns in music. It’s a slow catharsis that washes over you for an eternity. It’s even more effective when unfurled live, as the static rises and overtakes James’ voice, until all you have to hold onto is that tapTAP-tap beat, like a titan’s finger checking the mic. It’s easy to get lost in, easy to sink into.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.