When, exactly, did James Blake become a heartthrob? The 24-year-old producer/singer/songwriter strolled out on stage at Terminal 5 in New York Tuesday night (May 7) to a trembling chorus of gleeful screams and whistles, most of which came from young (and a few not-so-young) female admirers in the sold-out audience. Blake was tan and smiling with a mop of auburn hair not entirely dissimilar from the famous ‘do of another J.B. He gave a genial wave before slipping behind a piano on the far right of the stage and had the general posture of a man who seemed to really enjoy his life.
All of this would be perfectly normal, of course, if it weren’t for the cerebral, moody angularity of so much of Blake’s music. The British wunderkind writes intricate, experimental songs that are best enjoyed with a pair of hi-fi headphones or in a bedroom during the golden hours. His breakthrough single was a minimalist, bass-heavy rework of a Feist song.
So when did he become a heartthrob? And how did he end up at Terminal 5, a monstrous 3,000 capacity venue near the ports of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen? Maybe it was the Feist cover, or the later, even more arresting Joni Mitchell cover. Or maybe it was “Retrograde,” the electro-soul lead single from Blake’s most recent album, “Overgrown,” released in March, which won him mainstream approval in addition to the usual kudos from the underground. Whatever the tipping point was, the bon vivant who grooved and grinded in his piano chair Tuesday had crossed it. He is a star, if not a particularly large one.
Blake was accompanied by one combination synthesizer/guitar player and a drummer, who did an admirable job keeping up with Blake’s unusual time signatures. There were a couple of bumps in the road, including a finicky drum machine, which had to be jerry-rigged multiple times, and a failed attempt at starting a dance party during “Overgrown” track “Voyeur.” The song is the closest Blake has yet come to house music, but it didn’t generate enough heat to get the crowd moving in a meaningful way.
On most other occasions, though, the audience was rapt. Kind strangers carried out one girl who literally fainted early on in the set, and a palpable giddiness seized all three floors of the venue at the opening hums of “Retrograde.” During “A Case of You,” the Joni Mitchel cover, the crowd shushed one rowdy section so loudly that for a moment the shushing itself drowned out the song. Blake, acknowledging the irony, let slip a chuckle before shushing the shushers. Like any star worth his salt, he was never not in control and the outcome was sweet.