Gig Review: James Blake vs. Bon Iver in Los Angeles

After seeing both James Blake and Bon Iver, I felt that reviewing my experiences together would best capture the mood I felt at each show. Part of this is because I associate these two artists for their beautiful voices and creative mixed acoustic-electronic production, but also because they highlighted two contrasting styles of performing very well. Regardless, I had the pleasure of seeing two of my favorite singers at the moment, James Blake and Bon Iver, at their respective Los Angeles performances. Before both concerts, people expressed their concern that each artist’s music would be hard to reproduce live due to their heavy use of effects. I wasn’t worried because they’re both so talented, but I was interested to see how they would tackle the issue. Both were accompanied by though provoking and captivating visuals, as well as a extremely talented band. The result was somewhat unexpected… but also unsurprising, depending how you look at it.

James Blake, despite using a live band to play much more electronic and effect dependent music, managed to recreate his records with incredible precision. Playing most of his recent album and a few songs off Overgrown, on multiple occasions he transitioned between a recording to live performance seamlessly – I wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t there watching it in person. It was all very impressive how talented he and his band (consisting of a drummer with mixed acoustic and electronic kit setup, a bassist/ sound mixer, and of course James on the keys) were at creating these incredibly intricate and layered songs live. There were a few moments in particular where his prowess in using these effects live really showed. The first was subtle – he captured the screams and applause of the audience in a loop and slowly altered it into the beginning of “Retrograde”, so that for a moment the audience was left in a surreal moment of questioning why they could still hear applause when everyone was silent. The next was much more apparent – he performed a live recreation of an old dubstep song one of his friends made just using a keyboard and a drum kit. The result of the concert was a stunning contrast of purity and distortion.

Bon Iver on the other hand, who played 22, a Million from start to finish before moving on to older music, did not attempt to create the same kind of perfection by any means. From the vocals to the instrumentals, he reinvented his album for the performance. His voice sitting at that incredible breaking point that he is so good at – the verge between angelic beauty and emotional meltdown – set the stage for the conflicted and religious 22, a Million. The individual voice cracks, distortions of audio, and instrumental artifacts from the walking saxophone all resulted in a less polished, but much more powerful performance that connected to the audience in a way that others at the show described as spiritual.

The locations of the two concerts also helped to enhance each’s performance. The Palladium’s incredible sound system and relatively small size created a very intimate atmosphere where everyone could appreciate each detail of James Blake’s sound, and the outdoor, nighttime setting at the Hollywood Bowl accentuated that spiritual feeling delivered by Bon Iver even further.

Seeing these shows brought up an interesting question for me: what is it I’m looking for when I go to see a show? Obviously this all comes down to preference, but I think what is so special about live shows is hearing what you can’t be produced in the studio. So, while James Blake delivered tremendously on the technical side with a pretty near flawless performance, for me, the Bon Iver show came across as something truly impactful and inevitably more memorable.

Listen to James Blake and Bon Iver on Spotify.

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