James Blake

with Oliver Tank

The hum of Splendour In The Grass has been hanging around the city all week. We’ve seen stage dives, room-wide singalongs, beers drunk out of shoes. It’s been a wild ride. Tonight is a very different affair. The seated Palais Theatre sets a melodramatic scene. But given the awestruck, pin-drop silence James Blake tends to command, it feels appropriate.

As the lights go down, Oliver Tank shuffles into view. Clutching at a guitar, the Sydney-sider offers up a mellow, pretty introduction to the night. Minimal electronica transforms into woozy dream-pop on stage, and it’s nice. But Tank doesn’t quite nail the hazy bliss of his studio efforts. Maybe the mix is to blame, but things definitely feel over-crowded. Nonetheless, there’s a few moments of pure gold, and I’m left wondering what Tank could pull off on his own turf.

Those who were expecting a night of timid beauty from James Blake are in for a surprise. As the band find their positions, the set pulsates into life. Blasts of light and a pounding vocal sample morph steadily into dubstep banger ‘Air & Lack Thereof.’ Then the bass drops, flattening everything in its path. It’s an utter shock after months spent listening to Blake’s gentler efforts, and it’s incredible.

Watching Blake’s songs come to life is truly hypnotising. Each of the three musicians on stage is locked into their own warped groove. Blake softly convulses behind his keyboard, Rob McAndrews rocks his guitar back and forth in a trance. Behind the drum kit, Ben Assiter is most hypnotising of all, head and shoulders forming a polyrhythmic metronome. On record, songs such as ‘Overgrown’ seem delicate in their prettiness. But armed with a couple of friends and a whole load of volume, Blake is the exact opposite of fragile. The naked vocal line which launches ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ sounds as gentle as ever, but Blake’s loop pedals deftly build the song into a warped and unnerving beast. It’s a tense wait as everything builds, and when the bass finally kicks in I can feel my eyeballs rattle in my skull. Synth explodes into an extraterrestrial wail, strobe lighting pummels the seated crowd. Wow.

But the highlight of the night is still to come. Explaining that he started a record label with the intention of releasing dance music, Blake leads the band into a pounding take on ‘Voyeur.’ Suddenly the seated venue feels constricting, the crowd get worked up, bodies wriggle as violently as their chairs allow. But all too soon it’s over, and things settle back into the gorgeous ‘Retrograde.’

While the intimacy of James Blake’s Corner Hotel show earlier in the year did offer a thrill, tonight is something else. The place is lit beautifully, the sound is stunning, every little piece of the evening has been tuned perfectly. Capping the night off with a solo take on Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You,’ Blake leaves his audience absolutely floored.

Standing ovation.

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