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James Blackshaw - Vortex, London, 16/9/2009

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 24 / 9 / 2009

James Blackshaw - Vortex, London, 16/9/2009


At the Vortex in London, Dominic Simpson watches instrumental British guitarist James Blackshaw, backed by a mini-orchestra, play a spellbinding set

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.

Picture Gallery:-
James Blackshaw - Vortex, London, 16/9/2009

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digital downloads


All Is Falling (2010)
Breathtakingly orchestral ninth album from guitarist/pianist James Blackshaw, which finds him playing with a twelve-string electric guitar rather than its usual acoustic counterpart
The Glass Bead Game (2009)

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