When James Blake presses down on the keys of his Prophet 08 synthesizer, it makes plush and mysterious sounds — like something out of a funeral chapel or a video game.
But when he sings, he's all melancholy hiccups punctuated by long, purposeful silences. Time starts to wobble. Dead air comes alive.
The young Londoner's Sunday night performance at the Rock & Roll Hotel — his first in the U.S. outside of New York or SXSW — lasted only an hour, but an hour is a long time to hold your breath. As the singer made good on the smog of hype hanging over his self-titled debut album, the capacity crowd stood rapt, hesitant to even mouth along for fear of breaking those magic silences.
Blake emerged last year not as a singer but as a producer of dubstep, that virulent strain of British dance music where the burrowing bass lines and chittering rhythms make your eardrums dizzy. Since then, he's moved from the producer's chair to the piano bench, evaporating his music down to its pop essentials - and singing along.
On Sunday, he proved himself one of the most enchanting new voices in pop. A lithe and tender vocalist, he crooned like the ghost of a neo-soulman while his classically-trained fingertips roamed the keyboard, accompanied by the soft white noise of the club's fans whirring overheard.
His audience was reverent, even if they couldn't see the guy. Blake stands well over six-feet tall, but plopped down behind his keyboards, his ginger tufts of hair were barely visible from the back of the room. If you weren't bellied up to the stage, Blake was a spectral voice haunting the club, the same way his voice seems to haunt his recordings.
But you could tell that his songs - especially a flickering "Unluck" and a churning "Klavierwerke" - were unfolding in real time thanks to the human touch of Blake's backing musicians, Rob McAndrews, who played guitar and punched a sampler, and Ben Assiter, who played the drums.
And while his pals plucked and puttered along, Blake was quietly solving a dilemma that so many contemporary pop musicians face: the performance gap between the studio and the stage.
With the proliferation of home recording technology, scores of young artists are washing up on the blogosphere with precocious, hyper-sculpted albums that frequently translate into clumsy, disappointing live performances. Lately, that performance gap is feeling more like a performance chasm, but Blake has bunny-hopped it by amassing the right gear, hiring the right sidemen and presumably rehearsing himself hoarse.
His voice showed no signs of wear during the performance, but one of his keyboards did. It conked out during the most dramatic pause of the night, a break that bisects his cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love." Thankfully, the climactic rumble of bass that followed came from a sampler that was in full working order. (In the video for the song, those frequencies vibrate a glass of water across a table. Here, they rattled the walls.)
For the most part, technology served Blake well. During "To Care (Like You)," he stomped on a foot pedal that bumped his voice up an octave. As if he had taken a hit of helium or instantly changed gender, it allowed him to sing duet with himself.
But nothing was more delightfully disorienting than set-closer "The Wilhelm Scream." Like an R&B hit swaddled in violent distortion, the song's turbulence built then quickly dissolved, like a crashing jet that vanishes the moment before impact.
Perhaps taking a cue from Blake, the crowd responded with a tentative silence — is it over? — then a burst of cheers.