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JAMES BLAKE/CLOUD BOAT @ THE BAND ON THE WALL, MANCHESTER 26/03/11

It made a pleasant change to be strolling nonchalantly to a gig in the middle of an almost balmy Saturday afternoon, which still offered time with my wife later to sample a minuscule portion of the gastronomic delights Manchester has to offer. Once again, the city illustrates the sheer cornucopia of fabulous live venues available in this part of the North West with The Band On The Wall.  Small and intimate, but with a relatively high ceiling which provides a fantastic sound and a viewing gallery at the rear, providing an elevated area for those who don’t wish to jostle for position in the standing area. The Mancunian gig goer is certainly spoilt compared to the majority of locations around the country.  As usual, I still manage to arrive slightly late and Cloud Boat are already well into their set. My first impression is less centred around Sam and Tom on stage however and more upon the audience.  Almost exclusively of student age and standing in completely hushed silence, listening intently, it immediately contrasted with the Woods gig a couple of weeks ago at The Deaf Institute, when the chattering classes seemed to dominate the evening.  This, almost reverence, wasn’t even for the main act but the support, so I have to pay tribute even at this early stage to a particularly knowledgeable and courteous crowd.  In relation to the music on offer this afternoon, I have to confess to a certain amount of ignorance, as although I have listened to and enjoyed immensely James Blake’s debut album, as a genre, his style of electronica isn’t an area I’m overly familiar with.  In many ways, the mystique around Blake’s sound was dispelled by Cloud Boat, as they incorporate very similar techniques.  Both Sam and Tom are seated and while an almost operatic vocal and guitars are used to good effect, it’s the Roland SP 404 that adds the meat to the bones.  For those, like me, unfamiliar with this technology, the SP 404 has the appearance of an oversized games console, which is played, if that’s the correct description, by the triggering of sounds as required within the songs and this is where the heavy bass reverberation emanates favoured by dubstep artists .  While the sight of someone on stage pressing buttons initially enthrals, after quite a short period of time it does start to lose it’s novelty factor.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the music, in particular the deft guitar work through a small Vox amp and the vibrating floor produced by the resonating bass, although this does play havoc when trying to take decent photographs. A note to all bands at this point be prepared to take a leaf from Cloud Boats book and introduce your songs on stage.  Not everyone is familiar with your work, but at least I can mention “So Much Like Myself” “Lions on the Beach” and “Pink Grin” were all played.

www.cloudboat.co.uk
www.myspace.com/cloudboat

It may have been beneficial to arrive even later as witnessing Cloud Boats set detracted from my enjoyment of James Blake. As mentioned previously, the air of mystery around various sounds had been put to flight by the use of an extremely clever, but soulless piece of technology.  As a fan of truly “live” music, more familiar with an energetic rock show, the sight of three, very serious looking musicians utilising minimal interaction with the crowd, isn’t my idea of a live spectacle. Blake himself has an aura almost of embarrassment as he walks onto stage, making his way past a mass of wires and pedals, with a white coffee cup that appeared to hold only water. His awkwardness is further extenuated after “I Never Learnt to Share” as a cry from a female fan of  “We love you James” was met with flushed cheeks, rather than a cheeky retort.  Again, it’s not that the music wasn’t pleasurable it just didn’t suit the live scenario, especially when executed by, to all appearances, a reluctant performer.  Blake comes across as the type of musician more at home in the studio or in front of a laptop, creating, rather than presenting his work.  

The majority of the set, was as expected made up of tracks from the debut album, with the singles “Limit to Your Love” and “The Wilhelm Scream” standing out.  Blake did however announce material from his previous EP’s had been requested prior to playing “Klavierwerke.”  At this point he displayed the greater part of his interaction with the assembled disciples, apologising for sounding creepy, quickly turning off the reverb before proceeding.  The use of vocal effects raises an added issue as Blake’s natural singing voice is a joy to behold and the use of effects and loops diminishes the exquisiteness of his tones in my humble opinion.  
I’m probably approaching the whole aspect of this gig in an erroneous manner and trying to compare and contrast with the rock music I hold dearest.  Perhaps I should try to place myself in the persona of other audience members, who appeared to allow themselves to, naturally I’m sure, drift away to astral planes based on the sounds themselves, rather than the lack of visuals on stage.  
Would I rush to seize another opportunity to see James Blake live....... no, I’ll content myself listening to the album and subsequent recordings as I do genuinely regard him as a talented artist.  I’ll leave the gigs to those who understand this genre of music much more than I do.

Set List

Unluck
To Care
Give Me My Month
Tep & Da Logic
Never Learnt
Lindisfarne
Klavierwerke
Limit to Your Love
Half Heat Full
The Wilhelm Scream

www.myspace.com/jamesblakeproduction
jamesblakemusic.com