James Blake, Catherine Okada, Cloud Boat
Chris Eustace 04/02/2011
Of all those who have taken The XX's minimal template and run with it, James Blake is 2011's anointed one. As his star has risen over the last few months, he's remained somewhat elusive on the live front. Now however, with his debut album about to be released, tonight's gig at The Borderline, opening HMV's Next Big Thing series, is the first opportunity for most of the crowd to gauge whether he's an amazing new talent or merely Jessie J for the Pitchfork set.
It's testament to the clout Blake already has that he was able to hand-pick his support acts for this show. Openers Cloud Beat largely share their friend's sparse, lovelorn aesthetic. The sit-down duo's guitars give some folk-rock leanings to their combination of skittering beats, choice samples and soaring vocals, recalling Mogwai's more restrained moments, Thom Yorke's "The Eraser" and Darkstar. Following that, the arrival of a double bass onstage announces that we're not in Nightbus territory anymore, as Catherine Okada and her band trade impressive harmonies over perky alt-country. Resembling a less sarcastic Emmy The Great, she's something of a curveball as far as this bill is concerned, but with "Barriers" a particular highlight, certainly not unwelcome. Blake devotees are advised to investigate both acts, as he later announces that they will soon be supporting him again.
Minutes before James Blake takes to the stage, it's obvious the venue is so sold out that the only way later arrivals can get a glimpse is by leaning over the entrance stairs. He may arrive with some fanfare - introduced as "The Next Big Thing" by compere John Kennedy, but Blake's first act onstage is to bat this away with a self-deprecating "We'll see", before pointedly launching into "Unluck", its funereal organ suggesting he's not taking anything for granted, nor necessarily putting himself in the frame in the first place.
After some hilarious audience one-upmanship, with cries of "I love you!" topped by "I love you more!" before one guy splutters "I...I bought your EPs!" He goes straight into "Limit To Your Love"- the Feist cover that propelled him from production talent feted by those in the know to bona fide daytime radio contender. Rather than a beery singalong, there's a reverent silence as the bassline rumbles through the venue, and it's here you realise that tonight is going to be special - it may be an intimate venue already, but it now feels as if we are with Blake and his two bandmates in their front room. Granted, he may be slightly more conventional musically than the hype may have you believe, with one solo piano track suggesting a more tremolous Ryan Adams, but a cathartic "I Never Learned To Share" demonstrates his talent for leftfield, but affecting songwriting. As he repeats "My brother and sister don't speak to me/But I don't blame them" as squealing synths rise ever closer to the surface, it's as if we're spying on someone at confession, albeit with a priest who knows the value of a good kick-drum sound.
It's closer and new single "The Wilhelm Scream" that truly astonishes though, whether it's lyrical sentiments ("All that I know is I'm falling...might as well fall") are meant to be taken as sad resignation or going-down-fighting defiance, it's a masterclass in how to let a song build. Going from a murmur to cymbal-crashing stomp, then at its highest, hardest point, simply dropping back into burbling keys and Blake's wounded croon, it's both exhilarating and heart-rending. Just as the audience gets its breath back, we are bid goodnight. While it's been seven songs, it feels like its gone by very quickly, yet short of encoring with a fight-to-the death with Jamie Woon, it's hard to see how he could have done any more.
Whether this set will translate to bigger stages, whether the album will bring the success many are expecting, whether those hanging off the stairs tonight will be telling the grandkids about this evening or pretending they'd seen The Vaccines or Brother instead - they're all matters for another day. Right now, it feels like this was an event.