Music Review: Blake Mills at the Hamilton

Blake Mills. (Image courtesy of the artist)
Blake Mills. (Image courtesy of the artist)

WASHINGTON, December 8, 2014 – Blake Mills, who recently performed here at the Hamilton, is a professional musician. That’s different from someone saying he’s in a band or has been in a string of bands or has even gone off as a solo artist.

True, these are all things you could say about Mills at some point in his career – including now – but that isn’t all there is to him as far as the industry is concerned. If for some reason his latest album, “Height-ho,” tanks (hypothetically speaking, because it won’t) were his solo career to go belly up, Blake Mills would still be finding work in the music world, likely for the rest of his life.

The first time Blake Mills gained any sort of recognition in the music world was during his involvement with the California band Simon Dawes, better known now as the precursor to the current band Dawes. Mills never really had a hand in Dawes, at least as it currently exists. But he certainly played a part in the creation of their sound.

Since then, he’s done turns as a touring guitarist for some fairly well known musicians and has worked for other big names as a session guitarist. All this while he’s been working on his own material.

Mills views music not just as a passion, but also as a profession. His music reflected that to some extent during his live show at the Hamilton. While the range of that show might not exactly represent his musical longevity, the subtlety was there in the music.

His sound makes resemble a singer/songwriter with the kind of California verve that was popular during the ‘80s. But he went to great lengths to alter this dynamic during his show here, even though his effort wasn’t immediately obvious.

As a performer, Mills puts himself across as an easygoing singer who seduces his audience into the songs he’s playing. He’s a meticulous performer who could be mistaken for a lackadaisical one at times. Yet his guitar artistry and his backing band’s instrumentation in general provided his recent set with an added boost of genuine energy.

His artistry is stylistically consistent. But he’s able to fold enough tricks and digressions into his playing that despite how soft and methodical he can be, he can never be accused of putting on a dull or boring performance.

Mills’ stylistic changeups are what help him through most of the. His performances have spanned enough genres that he’s become especially adept at inserting new bits and pieces into his guitar playing without ever really shifting in tone.

Of course, by the end of the night his Hamilton show wasn’t entirely about Blake Mills. That’s because towards the end of his set he decided to surprise the audience and bring out Fiona Apple as his special guest. That gave a show-stopping twist to the night, although it was perhaps not too surprising, given the two of them have had a working relationship going all the way back to when Mills was a touring guitarist for Apple.

Her bluesy vocals obviously lent a different dimension to Mills’ set. That sensation never felt out of place, though, as Mills’ musicianship consistently ties everything together into a coherent package.

This is the kind of surprise Blake Mills’ career can dig up for a live show. As we’ve noted, he’s well respected and connected enough in the industry that he call upon current and former colleagues to help him create these kind of musical moments. His ability to develop a compelling, entertaining show is clear evidence of his obvious growth from his early years as a working, journeyman guitarist.

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