By John Lynch, Managing Arts Editor
Published May 9, 2013
I had only been to the Majestic Theatre in Detroit once before last Friday. Two years ago, I saw an upstart Odd Future crew storm into the small venue and wreck havoc. Though Tyler, the Creator eventually cut the concert short after audience members began inexplicably throwing glass bottles on stage, the show was memorable for many reasons: It was the first concert I had ever been to with a mosh pit, it was the closest I have come to suffocating to death and it was the first time I had ever heard Frank Ocean’s voice.
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Needless to say, seeing English singer and producer James Blake at the Majestic was an entirely different experience. This time, the audience wasn’t adorned with upside-down cross T-shirts and there were no shouts of “GOLF WANG!” nor any shouts at all. Starting a mosh pit at this show would have been an incredible imposition to the crowd — a group of about 200 silent, motionless hipster folk that sipped casually on over-priced beer while trying hard to look vaguely interested in the show.
After a trivial opening performance from a man called “FaltyDL” — who graced us with an over-long set of sluggish EDM tracks from his laptop — Blake took the stage, accompanied by a guitarist and drummer and looking remarkably lanky and awkward in his six-foot-five stature. Without an introduction, the trio opened with “Air & Lack Thereof,” an obscure instrumental from his early discography that translated surprisingly well in concert.
Sitting behind a keyboard (as he did throughout his performance), Blake first used his microphone on “I Never Learnt to Share,” a haunting number from his self-titled debut album. With the help of a loop machine, he triple-layered his voice — which was absolutely stunning in person and every bit the improbable combination of D’Angelo and Joni Mitchell that penetrates the synths of his studio tracks — before unleashing the song’s dizzying drop.
Two of Blake’s more famous tracks, “CMYK” and his Feist cover, “Limit To Your Love,” were arguably the highlights of the show. The former, a slow-building, Kelis-and-Aaliyah-sampling dance track, was the set’s most energetic piece — subtly reinterpreted from its studio version through electric guitar and live drums. With fan-favorite “Limit To Your Love,” Blake had the crowd in a frenzy from the first piano note to the final, bass-wobbling wave of sound.
Though Blake only played five songs from his latest release, Overgrown, most tracks from the album were relatively disappointing in a live setting. “Our Love Comes Back” and “I Am Sold,” which he debuted live for the first time in Detroit, were lackluster, tedious and hypnotic in the worst way. “Retrograde,” the crowning achievement from Overgrown and Blake’s career thus far, concluded the main set and seemed unexpectedly flat. The song’s cathartic crescendo of synths didn’t pack the awe-inspiring punch of the studio track, and for the first time that night, Blake’s vocals didn’t quite “hit” right.
After an encore performance of his Joni Mitchell cover, “A Case of You,” Blake was met with rousing applause and looked genuinely humbled by the audience's response as he left the stage. At one point in the show, Blake remarked that the Majestic Theatre was renowned among musicians as a “magical” venue and that he could certainly see why.
Though his genre of music is not inherently thrilling live — glass bottles were daintily sipped that night rather than thrown on stage — and though he and his band missed the mark on a few tracks in Detroit, James Blake has incredible talent, and his live performance (which matched the Majestic’s dark and gloomy atmosphere) is certainly one worth seeing.