James Blake's Winter of Discontent


Written by Yusuf Laher
17 Monday 17th January 2011

It’s all hands on deck at Plan B when I arrive. Staff look overwhelmed, taken aback by an early wave of James Blake-mania. Advance tickets sold out ages ago. And by 8:30pm, the queue’s jam-packed with hip hopefuls. Luckily, my name’s on the list. But when I get to the front, Igor the Terrible won’t budge. “You go over dere,” he says. Is it me, or is he pointing at traffic?

Eventually, I’m rescued from the Russian Hulk and ushered to the door. Portishead’s 'Glory Box' is playing and the smoky room looks still and surprisingly subdued for 2011’s hottest ticket. No doubt they’re funneling people in slowly, strategically – classic nightclub technique. Still, you can feel the anticipation in the air.

From the cover of Clash Magazine to the BBC’s 'Sounds of 2011' and hype from NME, it’s been a busy year for 22-year-old James Blake already. And don’t forget, last month, he was the runner up in the Brit Awards 2011 Critics’ Choice category – sandwiched between Jessie J and The Vaccines.

Two burly-looking dudes with guitars and a collection of pedals and gadgets go on first. “What’s your name?” shouts someone in the crowd, after a particularly serene piece of quivering guitar and electronic ambience. “Cloud Boat… Like a boat that you ride like a cloud in the sky,” comes a muddled answer from the stage.
At one point, Cloud Boat (aka Sam and Tom from London) sound like an inconsiderate neighbour blasting some drum and bass over a gentle bit of guitar strumming next door. But most of the time, the high, operatic vocals and combination of modern equipment and wooing guitars holds the still-building crowd’s gaze like a frozen moment.
Blake was scheduled to come on at 10:30pm. But by 10:40pm, there’s no sign of him. I push my way through. At this point, gaps are hard to find. The front row’s lined with photographers. One of them pulls out an NME contract and reads through it. No need, I’d already guessed who he was shooting for from the twirly mustache. (Mustachioed Ed - Hey, fuck you guy!)
Finally, Blake floats on stage like he’s walking on eggshells. And before he’s even played a single note, the gaggle of photographers leans forwards and exhales a searing flash of bulbs, right in the dude’s face. Blake looks overwhelmed. He brushes his fringe out of his eyes with a bony finger, takes a deep breath and goes for it.
Straight away, the most surprising thing about Blake is the voice. Where does it come from? Here’s this skinny, introverted-looking young piano player and, from somewhere, he digs out this deep, soulful, almost Luther Vandross-ish voice, punctuated by shy, awkward indie angst and minimalist, post-dubstep beats. And the whole time, his slender fingers dance along the keys like spiders.
Clash Magazine called Blake the “crown prince of the quiet revolution,” and it’s a title that suits him. During his songs, while he’s singing morbid lines like, “my sister and my brother don’t speak to me, and I don’t blame them,” the crowd looks on in frozen silence. People actually look miserable and depressed. At one point, I accidentally bump into someone behind me. “Jesus, I’m trying to watch the fucking show,” she says, momentarily shaken from her tranquil gaze.
But after each song, applause fills the room. And those pained, searching looks turn to smiles and cheers. Meanwhile, doe-eyed girls in the front row stare straight through him. A group next to me shouts, “Achy Blakey! Woo-hoo!”
“Thanks to my band. Thanks to Cloud Boat, who were beautiful – I had a lump in my throat the whole time. And thanks to everyone for coming. I’m going to remember this for a long time,” says Blake after last track 'Anti-War Dub'.
Blake cuts a humble and appreciative character. He’s clearly overwhelmed by the response. And on stage, his persona is dry, subdued and slumped, something I’m sure he’ll develop as he goes on. But at the end, as he swooned off stage, he looked like he’d enjoyed it. Like it was something he could get used to.
Outside and in the hallways people are already on Facebook, unashamedly updating their new James Blake–related statuses. And just outside the smoking area, girls are queuing up outside Blake’s room, quizzing his perplexed-looking band mates about the unlikely young star’s whereabouts.   
James Blake's self-titled debut is out on Atlas/A&M February 7.

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