Unlike some other concert-going experiences, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into Saturday at the Englert. Outside of my familiarity with James Blake’s music itself, I watched video of his Coachella performance from earlier this year. Obviously, with the festival setting, the dynamics were bound to be different. I did not realize that the change would be so drastic.
The first unexpected sight came when I walked into the Englert itself. Knowing that Blake was going to be sitting down for the entire set, I was surprised to see that there was a group of people standing by the orchestral pit. It is a mosh pit at other times, but it never got that intense for Blake. I preferred to think of it as a mincing pit. This pit held firm and only grew as the time drew near.
First on the stage was Nosaj Thing. Walking out into an intense haze and a solo blue light, Jason Chung walked onto his platform and cranked out a nice set of ambient, hip-hop-tinged electronic music. With only a couple of tempo changes and the addition of some deep bass hits over his thirty-minute set, Nosaj Thing didn’t really grab me at all. I thought that were some interesting parts, but it was a little too much of the same thing. It also needed a distraction. Since it’s just one guy twiddling knobs, there wasn’t a lot to look at. He really could have used a visual to run behind him.
— Tom Schroeder (@jtomschroeder) November 18, 2013
Blake understood that watching him and his band play on stage might be slightly boring, so he added an extra element to his live performance: an amazing light show. We could see the parts of it while they were changing over between acts. I talked to my friend Patrick before the show. He told me that the people running the show were excited about it. It’s very hard to get tech people psyched about stuff — trust me.
When the lights went down, the audience went up. A wisp of a lad from the weird part of North London — his words, not mine — Blake came out and started doing what he knows best: making loops. As he started getting into it, the light show started and we all knew that this was about to get serious. Blake started off a little bit slow, diving into some that neo-R&B sound that he does so well. This was all matched to a beautiful light show that illuminated the theater and served as a perfect background to the show. This slow start was a nice transition out of the Nosaj Thing set.
After three songs or so, Blake started to raise the tempo a little bit, switching out of a dubstep-style beat into a trap beat then a house beat. He got slow after this, but it served as a precursor to what would come later: a set of dancefloor tracks. Before those, we got to see the band just go off of each other and find their groove. If there is one thing that is always important to remember about Blake, it is that he is a musician. Him and his band displayed excellent musicianship on Saturday. It made these slower songs really stand out in a way that they might not in lesser hands.
When he got to the dance songs, the band just went for it. They had some old school dubstep in there mixed with some acid house and heavy bass. It was an interesting thing to see three guys sitting at their positions just cranking out very, very good electronic music. This part of the set was my favorite. It was the James Blake that I first experienced and still like to see from time to time. When time came to close, he ended with “The Wilhelm Scream,” which was an excellent choice on which to end this beautiful set.
Blake played an encore of a new track. Part spiritual, still all Blake, he walked off stage on a loop with all the lights off. When the house lights came back on, everyone there knew they had seen something special. It was an excellent night at the Englert.