Monday, March 9, 2009

Concert Review: James Blackshaw, Issue Project Room, NYC, March 7

James Blackshaw is one of those musician that elicits the response "Huh--he's only twenty-seven?" and leaves anyone younger feeling they aren't using a tenth of their potential the way he does. Wielding a 12-string acoustic guitar, Blackshaw's technique already seems fully-formed, and his playing timeless. A decent fingerstyle guitarist quickly learns to pluck out a bassline with the thumb and lay a melody with the fingers, doing two things at once. Blackshaw sometimes seems to do about ten things at once. He knows when to show restrain and let a few notes or a single chord ring out, when to let phrases loll around between the empty silences, and when to dazzle with his speed. His pieces are long and hypnotic, but rely a lot on repetition and variations on short phrases. They're often long--three of the six tracks on his 2008 album Litany of Echoes pass the 11-minute mark--but melodic and accessible.

The same music and performance would be astonishing and worthwhile from a seasoned veteran selling $50 tickets, so it's surprising in concert to drop ten bucks and hear these sounds come out of a skinny kid from London in a t-shirt. And though his recordings feature some embellishments, like strings, they sound just as full and lush, if not moreso, coming from a solo live guitar.

The Issue Project Room was a nice complement for Blackshaw's performance. The venue is awaiting a move to an old theater, but until it works up the money to renovate they're operating out of a mysterious building in Park Slope. It seems like some sort of old factory building. You pass thick doors with huge barn-style latches, and walk up a few flights of concrete steps to get to a narrow concert space on the third floor. The narrow room isn't conducive to getting a great few from far away, but with a capacity of about 100 that's not much of a problem, and the intimate atmosphere is great for focusing attention on the performers.

The openers were adequate, if a bit sleepy. Metal Mountains, a three-piece of vocals/guitar, guitar, and violin, milk the same low-key, low-tempo, low-action sound too long and for too little, and waste the violin on long, atmospheric notes instead of exploring counter melodies or the instrument's range. I can't find much information about them, and their has an astonishing zero listens as I right this review. At least they kept it short, though. Their sleepy feeling carried over to Meg Baird, whose set seemed to be twice as long with half as much happening. Entry-level fingerpicking on basic chord patterns complemented by a faux-Joni Mitchell whine, but sedated and uneventful. A back-up slide guitarist added a lot to the middle portion of the set, but it was too much of the same.

If anything, Metal Mountains and Meg Baird served as a contrast that only pulled the richness of Blackshaw's music into sharper focus. While the warm-ups were content to drift along on one or two music ideas per song, Blackshaw with one guitar explored more ideas in a single phrase than they did in an entire composition. With the Mountains and Meg, the music lulls the audience into closed eyes and threatens to send them to sleep. With Blackshaw, it's fun to let eyes close just to be able to focus on the drift and pull of the music, which mesmerizes and engages, but doesn't let attention flag.

(On that note, however, a special "fuck you" is in order: Despite the intimacy of the venue and Blackshaw's low profile, I still spotted "that girl" at the show: you know, the one who sits through the entirety of two middling opening acts, yet checks her phone during the main set and leaves before the encore. What the hell? You don't end up at a show for a semi-obscure guitarist on accident, and this wasn't some booze-filled club, where the music is a backdrop to socialize with hipster doofuses. Fuck you, that girl.)

Litany of Echoes was one of my favorite albums of last year, and it would have ranked higher had I been able to appreciate Blackshaw in a live setting a bit earlier. For someone so talented, Blackshaw seems pretty mild-mannered and easy going, and the show went along at a nice even pace. He doesn't talk much or take his hand off his guitar except to sip from a drink between each piece, and stops to retune after each composition finishes. After his set ends, the applause continues within flagging, and he admits that he doesn't usually play encores, but offers up a new piece. Unprepared, he has to ask an audience member to hammer out a few notes on the venue piano to help him tune. Although the piano's tuning itself is suspect, the piece he offers up some the greatest dynamic range out of anything he performed, indicating that this bright young talent, who already shines far beyond his years, has a lot of growing and exploration left to do.

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