Of all the superlatives thrown James Blake’s way on his cyclonic rise to neo-soul success, it’s almost impossible to pick one that sticks for more than five minutes. From aerated dub don extraordinaire to clandestine classically trained pop prince, despite his two chord heart busting cover of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ edging it’s way onto Radio 1’s playlist and a second place spot on the BBC’s sound of 2011 shortlist, the London prodigy’s barely said a word. Blake’s a mystery, in essence, but one that’s ambiguities only served to heighten hysteria and showcase his talent. Say nothing; let the music do the talking.
Not having toured extensively before has only helped the situation, instead the converted making do with pilgrimage to sweaty club to linger into the night for visions of their messiah. In turn greeted by discs and decks and sounds and sanctity, today’s show at Manchester’s Band On The Wall is different, as Blake's joined only by two band mates – Ben Assiter on drums and Rob McAndrews on guitar and sampler – a Steinway piano and his pitch perfect, quavering voice.
Playing most of his debut in order, Blake and band soon settle into a keening groove of softly hit keys and potently struck dramatics. Live the fissures and cracks that weave their way through Blake's music like ants through the draff sound dense and dizzyingly crystalline. Pregnant silences - resonating as loud as any note played tonight - are filled only by the crowd, whose anticipatory hush makes them dense and heavy.
Blake's naysayers would have it that his album never really delivered on the promise of an artist who fractured dubstep's foundations and re-laid them to construct new designs, paving new ways (or opening new directions) for artists who before mined the genre's spacious beats for pathos. Live, at least, these complaints seem redundant. 'The Wilhelm Scream's’ spidery guitar lines playfully underpin Blake's hesitant eloquence, a two step surge into it's echoing vinyl crackle sounds akin to BOTW detonating into oblivion. The subtlety's still there, it's just blown up to different dimensions; 'I Never Learnt To Share' sees Blake's cappella looping vocal descending into a maelstrom of throbs and synths that shift as fluidly as quicksand. The bass for ‘Limit To Your Love’ feels more like feeling than output.
It's easy to see why Blake might not be considered a shoe in for mainstream successes; a closing rendition of Joni Mitchell's 'A Case Of You' - played solo on the Steinway - is possible not the most pleasing conclusions for those that heard 'Limit…' on the radio and came to see what the fuss was all about. To our ears, it's another piece of music that Blake splashes his own colourful palette onto to craft something quite extraordinary. Not the best kept secret anymore, Blake's still one of the UK's best chances of pushing boundaries outwards until they burst.