When we last saw James Blake, the setting was a midnight gig inside a large church at SXSW. The audience was sleepy and hushed, and didn't so much as whisper during the set. Friday at ACL, Blake faced the challenge of bringing his music to a large audience of talking, drinking festivalgoers, many of which were likely hearing him for the first time.
The results were mixed: Blake's sonics were incredible, as the thundering dubstep basslines and tweaked, tuned vocals sounded excellent filtered through the massive PA's, giving the music added power and strength. Visually, though, there simply wasn't a lot going on.
As a new artist, Mr. Blake probably doesn't have the production budget for visuals, but his music screams out for them—especially given that the young musician is trapped behind a keyboard and can't really work directly on engaging the audience. While we saw a number of curious casual fans stop by and then walk away, the devoted fans loved what they heard.
The simple opening of "I Never Learnt To Share" drew huge applause, as Blake worked his tricks of both repetition and keeping the music sparse to bring a sense of urgency to the single lyric: "My brother and my sister don't speak to me...but I don't blame them." He also performed his lovely cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love," which was perhaps the only mass appeal moment of the set. The biggest applause came when he dug out early EP track "CMYK" (which stands for Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-blacK, if you're curious) in what he termed the song's US debut. The song's foreboding effects drew everyone in, and the sonic build and release was a true highlight of the afternoon.