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James Blackshaw – A Live Review

Hanbury Ballroom, Brighton

Written by Richard Hanscomb


London-based 12-string guitarist, James Blackshaw, is known for his compositions possessing of a subtle complexity beyond his twenty something years. The Hanbury Ballroom inspires a hushed reverence as you enter and provides the perfect setting to showcase Blackshaw‘s talents. The Ballroom may be not as grand as it sounds but there’s certainly an aura of opulence that prevails. Fitting then for tonight’s solemnization of sound, although this transpires to be far from any freak-folk shindig you might expect. Both Blackshaw and Mat Sweet of Boduf Songs are Englishmen recording for revered American labels who both make music often tagged ‘folk’ but there’s a world of difference between them and it made for a compelling performance.


Boduf Songs take the stage as the Ballroom begins to fill out nicely. The first time I heard Mat Sweet’s music was a few years ago on his debut for Kranky Records. A largely acoustic affair, interspersed with field recordings, which I expected the same of tonight. Instead, Sweet wields a Fender Jaguar with quietly vicious intent. The set is tense and seethes with the same bottle-up-and-explode bitterness as Elliott Smith. Sweet’s hushed, melodic vocal inflection belies the inherent darkness of his music, punctuated by sparse, minimalist percussion. His ostensibly fragile sound design is disconcerting and eerie like the ominous, quiet rumble of summer thunder. By the time he’s finished, I’m exhausted, in a good way.


James Blackshaw is well on his way to attaining cult status as evidenced by the packed audience and move to Young Gods Records. My only qualm with his recent album, The Glass Bead Game, is that it often drifts into coffee-table-lit, augmented as it is by tremulous vocals, strings and cascading pianos. Tonight, Blackshaw plays unaccompanied and loose. In this context, his new material is imbued with passion and urgency. Cross becomes something akin to a wordless incantation as Blackshaw shreds his 12-string with dexterous and delirious abandon. As Bled plays out in its entire slo-fi splendour, it aches and yearns on ascent to the ballroom’s painted upper limits. Indeed, it’s in this sweaty, spontaneous setting where Blackshaw works best. Here’s hoping he suffuses the subsequent solo works with this kind of relentlessness. After all, it’s obvious this talented artist will be gifting the world plenty more albums.


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