At Outside Lands, James Blake proves he doesn’t need a spotlight to shine

Ryan Tuozzolo/Staff
Ryan Tuozzolo / Staff

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You may not recognize the name James Blake, but you’ve heard the electronic/R&B musician’s material. The 29-year-old English singer-songwriter-producer has collaborated with a plethora of prominent performers, including Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Chance The Rapper, to name just a few. In 2013, Kanye West even called Blake “Kanye’s favorite artist.” Blake has also crafted many recordings under his name alone — six EPs and more than 15 singles. It’s safe to say that Blake has carved out a comfortable niche for himself in the world of popular music, and he doesn’t seem to anticipate leaving it anytime soon.

As such a prominent social figure, Blake assumed the coveted Sunday time slot of a closer for one of the four Outside Lands stages — in his case, Sutro. Though Blake didn’t put on a striking persona onstage, he easily won his audience over with his sonically deafening and visually exhilarating presentation of an amalgam of his released music.

While he is a renowned musician, Blake didn’t take on a larger-than-life character at Outside Lands — he didn’t bother to try to pump the crowd up with side notes or impressive physical feats. As illustrated by the jubilant cheers of viewers as soon as he stepped onstage and sat down in front of his keyboard and synthesizer, he didn’t need any of this flashiness to rev up attendees.

As he began to play, Blake seemed to instantly turn inward, closing his eyes and focusing his full attention on sonics. He could have fit in just as well making music alone in his bedroom.

Despite putting on few theatrics, Blake performed on a sonically extraordinary set. His is the sort of music one needs high-quality headphones to properly appreciate. Huge speakers evidently work, too. Blake’s music — the resounding booms, the electronic melodies, the fluid rhythms, and his gentle and precise vocals and humming — is visceral. It gets deep in bones, echoes between ribs, makes heartbeats speed up or slow down. Part of his musical genius is capturing a sensation with a few simple words and a carefully selected chord progression. Experiencing Blake live thus proved infinitely more compelling and awe-inspiring than simply listening to his recorded material.   

The San Francisco fog added to the already mystical air of the performance, accentuating the ambiance created by the onstage smoke machine and otherworldly spotlights, which moved in time with the music. Blake’s set list built upon this sense of exhilarating mystery. Throughout his appearance, Blake performed a steady mix of material from his three studio albums, each demonstrative of a different chapter in his growth as a musician. The artist seamlessly transitioned between the deeply textured and reflective appeals of The Colour in Anything, the critically acclaimed and emotive melodies of Overgrown, and the raw and complex laments of James Blake. Combined with a scattering of singles, including his most recent release “Don’t Miss It,” the set list proved consistently exciting and intriguing to even the most familiar of Blake’s fans.

Blake closed the Sutro stage for the 2018 Outside Lands festival with his chilling single “The Wilhelm Scream.” As Blake noted, the piece is based off of a song created by his father, rock musician James Litherland: “Where to Turn.” Thus, the electronic musician drew a connection between his own work and that of his father, one of the few humanizing details that audience members received from the performance.

Blake’s live appearance Sunday confirmed what the musician’s lack of name recognition in relation to his prolific achievements hints toward — the musician doesn’t need a spotlight focused on him to show off.  

Ryan Tuozzolo covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @_rtuo.