Review of Blake Mills @ Rough Trade | 10/8/14
At his show at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade in New York City this past Wednesday evening, singer-songwriter/guitar virtuoso Blake Mills showed why he’s one of the most interesting, singular voices in what’s left of contemporary, rock-based pop songwriting. Despite only having two albums to his name, Mills performed a generous two-hour set, drawing out many of songs, rearranging others, and performing some of his favorite standards along the way. Backed by a impressive four-piece backing group (and with additional string arrangements from the New York-based classical chamber music outfit yMusic, who also opened up the show), Mills featured material from his 2nd album, Heigh Ho, with a few covers, and a hanful of tracks from his Break Mirrors debut thrown in as well.
After starting the night with a growling take on Heigh Ho opener, and highlight, “If I’m Unworthy” it became clear that Mills has little interest in rock rock ‘n’ roll histrionics. He performs sitting down, and his measured, highly sophisticated improvisational guitar playing style favors formalism over emotional expression. Yet Mills, the 28-year-old from California who has performed with everyone from Kid Rock to Lucinda Williams to Jackson Browne to Fiona Apple, commands his own subdued magnetism on stage. When Apple–Mill’s most recent collaborator–joined Mills’ on stage (as she’s been doing each night on this current tour) to sing on several songs, she stole the stage’s center of attention but only briefly. During her first song, a haunting cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” Apple’s vocal take on the late ’50s country cover had just about stole the show, before Mills took over the song’s ending for an extended guitar solo outro.
Despite her ability to command any stage she’s on, Apple seemed to be reveling in the low-pressure, out-of-the-spotlight joys of singing with and playing second fiddle to Mills. Apple added a much-welcome burst of energy during Wednesday evening’s mid-set contributions, so much so that the songs immediately following hers’ felt like an gradual comedown from her energetic, emotive performance.
Stealing the climactic ending from Apple was one of just a few moments like that on Wednesday evening when Mills’ allowed his deeply impressive musical skill set get in the way of his underrated knack as a pop communicator. On his new record, Mills occasionally runs into the same problem on intricate, drowsy gestures of “Just Out of View” and “Half Asleep.” “They said you guys in Brooklyn like that mellow shit,” the self-conscious Mills joked before performing the latter. Other missteps in Mill’s current live show include a harsh new arrangement of “Hey Lover,” one of the standout singles from Mills’ debut album. Mills’ seemed bored with his older material, deconstructing and recreating the material on stage, but Mills’ shout-talking the paranoid verses of “Hey Lover” of a droning organ riff did not do wonders for the song.
Blake Mills is perhaps too talented and richly imaginative of a composer and musician to handle the grinding machinations of the mainstream music industry. Discussing his song “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me,” one of two duets Mills performs with Apple on his new album, and one of the best songs he’s ever written, the L.A. singer-songwriter expressed his own self-righteous, naive indignation at radio station’s insistence on a non-explicit, radio edit of the song. Likewise, when Mills wanders into cliched singer-songwriter tropes, like chronicling in song the exoticism of a brief trip to Cuba, he falls short, making it clear he’s putting on someone else’s clothes. “Three Weeks in Havana” may be the weakest song he’s put to record, and far from the first to clumsily rhyme “Havana” with “banana” when writing about the Cuban capital.
But Mills’s old-fashioned, perhaps dated commitment to artistic integrity has earned the singer a much deserved, small but intensely devoted following in his own right, surely many of them aspiring or semi-professional musicians themselves. When he asked the audience, most of whom were seated, if anyone had been to his show at Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge the previous week, about half of the audience cheered on.
Instead of editing down “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me” for radio (and thus compromising his art), Mills told the crowd he and his label simply decided to go with anther single. “Gold Coast Sinking,” with its tough irregular rhythm and half-mumbled verses, it seemed like an odd choice for a radio single. But it received new life on stage, with Stuart Johnson’s expert drumming leading the band through the number. “Stuart Johnson on one of the world’s weirdest drumbeats,” joked Mills after the song.
Mill’s band, which featured Stuart Johnson on drums, Rob Moose on violin, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, and Tyler Chester on keyboards and organ, was a highly adept, cohesive unit, all of them reverently following Mills’ each and every solo on guitar, which would typically last anywhere from a few bars to a few minutes. The band showed its versatility early during a cover of Joe Tex’s “I’ll Never Do You Wrong,” showing that they can pull of a note-perfect take of an R&B standard in their sleep.
Some songs, like “Before It Fell,” were greatly enhanced by yMusic’s string section. Mills’ grandly produced Heigh Ho can occasionally seem overwrought, but many of his ambitious arrangements made much more sense, and were much more fully realized, when performed live. Other context proved helpful. Mills introduced his song “Cry to Laugh” as “your standard Randy Newman rip-off,” in which Mills attempted to replicate Newman’s simplistic blues piano chords on the guitar. After hearing that, the song made much more sense.
For his main set closer, Mills finally let his impressive band loose, performing a drawn out, improvised percussive jam on “Women Know,” which lasted somewhere close to fifteen minutes. For the encore, Mills switched gears entirely, performing a smooth on 1939 late-night blues standard “Tomorrow Night,” popularized by both Lonnie Johnson and Elvis Presley in the ’40s and ’50s, respectively. It was a direct statement from a songwriter whose greatest ability as a songwriter is being anything but.
Blake Mills @ Rough Trade 10/8/14 Setlist
No setlist has become available for this show yet.