James Blackshaw live review vortex, london / Dominic B. Simpson

...arrived with a mini-orchestra, which suggests that a more fuller sound will be on the cards somewhat. He doesn’t disappoint

Pennyblackmusic .com
James Blackshaw : Vortex, London, 16/9/2009
Author: Dominic B. Simpson
Published: 24/09/2009

The Vortex may look huge from the outside, but after checking out the bar
downstairs and waltzing up the stairs, you realise this venue in the heart
of Dalston in east London is in fact tiny. Its décor remains orientated
towards jazz, the music that it predominantly features here, with tables and
chairs dominating the stage, and taking precedence over the standing area at
the back and the bar (a grand piano, meanwhile, takes up roughly half the
space of the stage, which isn’t very big to begin with). Nonetheless, the
venue has branched out impressively with its programme as of late, with the
likes of Broadcast and Richard Youngs set to entertain the venue this month.

It’s an intimate enough setting to see British guitarist James Blackshaw,
and certainly contrasts with where he was rumoured to originally plan on
playing (the reverbed recesses of the Union Chapel, which feels about a
thousand times bigger than the Vortex). Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s packed
to the rafters in here, with every available space took up. It’s an
impressive feat that support act Tom James Scott pulls off, therefore, to
make the venue so quiet that you can hear a pin drop. The majority of his
set is frequently so hushed that you can fill in the blank spaces of
silence; he often brushes his guitar more than plays it, before suddenly
bursting into some beautiful arpeggios. Joined by an accomplice on tuba – of
all instruments – his set is an admiral lesson in naked restraint that
strips away any extraneous elements, but frequently torturous to watch for
all that. Such is the omnipresent silence that Scott’s music casts over the
audience that I discreetly make sure my mobile is turned off. If it had
rang, the entire venue would have heard it far louder than the music.

James Blackshaw, by contrast, has arrived with a mini-orchestra, which
suggests that a more fuller sound will be on the cards somewhat. He doesn’t
disappoint, launching into ‘Cross’, the opener from his last LP, 'The Glass
Bead Game'. Backed by two violinists (one of whom also plays the recorder),
a cellist, and a multi-instrumentalist who plays everything from xylophone
to saxophone, the music sounds perfectly embellished, complimenting
Blackshaw’s hypnotic ringing twelve-string perfectly. Like John Fahey and
Nick Drake before him, and (more latterly) Jack Rose and his previous band
Pelt, Blackshaw explores the ringing harmonics, drones and heavenly sounding
orchestral-like ebb and flow that can result from expertly fingerpicking a
twelve-string guitar in open tunings.

Unfortunately, for reasons only known to himself, the spellbinding nature of
the night - as the song finishes and we wait for the next one - is curtailed
somewhat by Blackshaw not having a spare twelve-string guitar in the
appropriate tuning. This would at least cut down some of the time that it
takes in between songs during which he is forced to retune the guitar to the
correct tuning for each track – always the Achilles Heel of a twelve-string,
as the player has to contend with twelve pegs rather than just six. The
inevitable effect is much chatter from the crowd to a soundtrack of bending
strings being tuned, which slightly dissipates the feeling of flow in
Blackshaw’s set.

Still, the performance of The Glass Bead Game’s 18-minute finale ‘Arc’ is as
good enough a reason to be here: Blackshaw’s beautifully orchestrated piano
playing, with it’s rolling notes and cadences, combining with the
mini-orchestra, is breathtaking, and leads the set into a realm far beyond
that of the usual run-of-the-mill guitarists. Indeed, if this sounds like
anything, it’s of something that Michael Nyman may have came up with in his
various soundtracks, and illustrates that Blackshaw has the talent to leave
far behind any notions of a ‘singer-songwriter’ type – not that he was in
the first place. The song attains an almost hymn-like, religious mood,
equally at home in a church than at a venue, climaxing with the
mini-orchestra in an explosion of light, emotion and sound. It’s far away
from any concept of rock or indie music and is the most spellbinding moment
of the evening.

After that, an encore of ‘Running to the Ghost’ – perhaps his most
well-known song, if Blackshaw can be said to have any kind of hits – is the
perfect comedown tonic.