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Concert Review: James Blake Plays a Chill Solo Set at Swank Museum of Modern Art Benefit

Variety logo Variety 6/6/2017 Jem Aswad
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When you’ve got Andre and Andra in the same room, chances are it’s a special evening. And while the two (Andre 3000 and Andra Day, respectively) did not meet on Monday night during James Blake’s special performance at the Museum of Modem Art, the combination says a lot about the curation of the event.

MOMA’s Parties in the Garden fly surprisingly under the radar: Thrown as benefits, the superbly curated events, which are thrown a couple of times a year, have included performances from The Weeknd, Robyn and Blood Orange on the high end — which include a full-blown open-bar party that takes over most of the museum, with a performance in the outdoor Sculpture Garden — to acts like Tei Shi and Mikal Cronin for the lower-key, late afternoon events. This one honored Eva and Glenn Dubin and Susan and David Rockefeller, along with collection artists Vija Celmins and Carrie Mae Weems. (The talent was booked by Lauren Driscoll in the museum’s Special Events department.)

Even though the headlining set for this one was a decidedly chill solo piano performance from James Blake, his performance was sandwiched by thumping DJ sets from Klaus (aka 1-800-Dinosaur) and Kaytranda — which made for an evening that was both raucous and classy — and really fun.

The Parties in the Garden are usually heavy on well-dressed young people and light on the usual music industry suspects, but this one was different: along with Andre/a, luminaries in the house included Columbia Recording artists Leon Bridges — sporting a sharp suit with a black-and-white swirl-patterned shirt — and Muna, accompanied by several management and label peeps; Stephen Bruner a.k.a. Thundercat (fresh from performing his song “Show You the Way” with ’70s-riffic guests Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on “Fallon”) was also in the house, and a few Republic label execs were on hand for Blake’s performance. (Continues below)

His half-hour set, performed on a giant grand piano on a high stage in the middle of the garden, essentially felt like evesdropping on a private performance. He improvised a bit on the piano before his high voice cut through the calm as he eased into a song that was either a new original or a cover we didn’t recognize. Then he noodled some more before embracing his surroundings by performing Don McLean’s “Vincent,” (a.k.a. “Starry, starry night”), written in homage to Van Gogh and his world-famous painting, which of course is on permanent display at MOMA. The song suits Blake’s high and reedy voice perfectly; the gesture equally suited his Britishness.

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He noodled a bit more before easing into a jazzy take on his own “Overgrown,” not distinctly different from the familiar version but the absence of synths and percussion makes it a much more free-form song. Then there was a bit more noodling before he shifted into a familiar cover from the same era as McLean’s, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which he has performed gorgeously for years, and did not disappoint tonight. And with that, he was done, passing through the crowd with a lovely companion with whom he was later spied in the VIP area as Kaytranda’s thumping DJ set kicked in and the crowd — which for the most part kept its indoor voices during Blake’s hardly party-starting performance — got its groove on.

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