Executing minimal electronic music live isn’t always the easiest task. Rely too heavily on preprogramming and there’s little performance value. Dress it up too much and risk altering the algid aesthetic fans are accustomed to.
Wednesday night at a sold-out First Avenue, British wunderkind James Blake found the perfect balance, bolstering his stark compositions while keeping its digitized complexion intact. Blake was joined on stage by two players, one manning electronic drums with organic cymbals and snare, and the other switching between synthesizers and a guitar. The trio trod into its set with a dark and dubby version of oldie “Air & Lack Thereof,” as smoke billowed onto the stage.
A sub-drubbing “I Never Learnt to Share” followed, with the club’s sound system doing things to the song’s lovely lows Earbuds can’t (hey, we can’t all afford Beats by Dre). A seemingly stretched out “CMYK” was a mid-set highlight, funneling into a clattering climax. A rapturous rendition of “Digital Lion,” a collaborative track between Blake and Brian Eno off Blake’s newly released “Overgrown” LP, played like war march for a primitive interplanetary army circa 3084. Its spooky electronics and pulsing beat outgrew its recorded version, at once tribal and mechanical.
Blake capped the pre-encore portion respectively displaying his dance and R&B sensibilities with the heady “Voyeur” and “Retrograde” from his new record. The trio returned to perform his unmistakable “The Wilhelm Scream," with a rapidly picked guitar giving the tender hit a new urgency and a rushing synth swirl making for a marvelous climax. It proved a fresh spin on what could have been a simpler, predictable walkthrough of his most famous song.
A lone Blake then closed the 85-minute set with his pristine piano cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”
The minimal maven masterfully reconstructed his electronic pop songs on stage, offering a far more savory experience than strapping on the headphones. As live electronic shows rank, Blake’s was truly elite.