The Rock and Roll Hotel was the most ill-suited venue to host James Blake, as it did on Sunday night. The shoebox-shaped venue isn’t blessed with the best sound system (that would be U Street Music Hall) or even decent sight lines (like the Black Cat). Worst still, the venue is, as the Washington Post’s Chris Richards noted, the place “where 20-somethings pay to be seen (and heard) while the latest Pitchfork-approved talents try to justify their hype onstage.” For an artist like Blake, who makes minimal, down-tempo music, I was apprehensive about the show, to say the least.
Despite the venue’s many faults, the show was nothing less than superb, thanks wholly to Blake and company’s captivating performance. The former funeral home was at its most tomb-like, with a mostly appreciative, respectful crowd. Moments of pin-drop silence punctuated the set; Blake often had to whisper “thank you” before the crowd would reward him with boisterous applause.
As his self-titled album does, the set began with the clicks and pulses of “Unluck,” its discrete pieces seemingly dancing to their own drummers before gracefully fitting together. On “Give Me My Month,” Blake gilded the hymnal with jazzy piano flourishes, and followed it up with the instrumental “Tep and the Logic,” a B-side that features waves of tremolo guitars and not much else.
After a bit of a false start, the amiable Blake launched into “I Never Learnt to Share.” His lilting vocal harmonies resembled weeping more than anything. The song was the night’s first example of what “post-dubstep” might mean: a slowburning melody that gives way to unrelenting sub-bass and synths.
Throughout his set, Blake shifted from moments of sparse simplicity to ones of overwhelming, enveloping sound, and back again. After “I Never Learnt to Share,” the gentle fingerpicking of “Lindesfarne” followed a transcendent moment with a contemplative one.
Transferring Blake’s recorded works from the bedroom to the big room is no small feat, yet Blake and compatriots Rob McAndrews (guitar) and Ben Assister (percussion) handled it deftly. Performing “Klavierwerke” (off the EP of the same name) live was impressive on its on, with its Burial-esque dubstep groove, hi-hat click track, and sped-up, funky breakdown.
The set definitely pushed the limits of Rock and Roll’s sound system. Thankfully, the speakers popped only once, and a brief power outage provided a moment of levity, during “Limit to Your Love.” On that song, with its propeller bass and an beefed-up drum break, Blake has done to Feist’s ballad what Jimi Hendrix did to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (admittedly on a much smaller scale).
Blake demurely closed the set with “Wilhelms Scream,” which had a crisper guitar and punchier sonics than the recorded version. Returning for an encore, Blake played a new, untitled song, solo with synthesizer. The church organ and “we can hope for heartbreak now” lyric ended the night on a poignant note. The Rock and Roll Hotel wasn’t perfect, but James Blake was, living up to the hype (and then some).