James Blake

James Blake

A thoroughly transcendent evening proved to be the reward for any who braved the Wintery July chill to gather at Margaret Court Arena for the young 27 year old James Blake's return to Melbourne. In his first performances on Australian shores since his highly acclaimed Splendour In The Grass tour and sideshows of 2013. Blake mesmerised, seduced and captivated his audience, while charming us all with his creative brilliance and downright humility.

From the outset, it was clear Blake immerses himself in the task of creating an intricate patchwork of layered soundscapes; but at the same time, also works hard to engage with his audience, and values their experience: "The last time we came to Australia we had some terrific crowds, and I'd imagine some of you might be here as well tonight. But, you know, this time it's just overwhelming us. It's great. I dunno, something happened. We went away and came back, and you know, it suddenly got crazy. So we're gonna play loads of new stuff. I just hope you enjoy yourselves. Stay with us."

Throughout the show he maintained the dialogue; with casual comments, apologies for getting swept away in his own music as if it was indulgent neglect, and with every word we were eating out of his hands. This gave the show an exceptionally intimate feel, which perfectly complimented the moody atmosphere he created; one that called upon the audience to surrender to a journey where he navigated us through quietude and lovelorn sorrow, to melancholia and dystopian worlds, then all the way to affirmations and elation. This was captured with crystal clear sound, at a comfortable volume that felt perfectly in balance with the overall experience.

Our emotional journey was cleverly crafted by Blake's juxtaposition of moody, simple beats and rhythms, with highly intense electronic pop and industrial beats to build the intensity. He's never afraid to employ silence, minimalist keyboards, a solitary drum beat, or sometimes pure isolated vocals to create emotional poignancy. It's quite extraordinary, and sets him aside from an industry that all too often follows a formulaic pattern.

James Blake
Photo credit: Margaret Court Arena

With a focus on the most recent albums, The Colour In Anything released this May this year and Overgrown from 2013, Blake treated us to a number of songs which have been performed only a few times, plus steadfast favourites. Opening with 'Always', which he's only performed three times live, then seamlessly merging into 'Life Round Here', he eased us gently into the mood. Continuing with the sombre, rainy day atmospheric tones of 'Choose Me', 'Radio Silence' and 'Timeless', he then guided us through carefully balanced rises and dips in pace and mood, to grooves such as the funky electro '200 Press'. This lead into the Feist cover 'Limit to your Love' which saw the audience vibe rise from one level to the next. With his audience dancing, Blake continued this pace with a strong techno-like beat, reaching 'I Hope my Life' from the new album.

Ben Assiter provided drums and Rob McAndrews guitar/sampler, with each sitting on a small podium and upon which a suitably moody light show of reds and blues gave a visual key for the mood. Characteristically, Blake who sat to one side, was highly respectful and inclusive of the value of his band members in the overall production of his music.

'Love Me In Whatever Way' and 'I Hope My Life' formed a strong centrepiece to the journey, recapturing the evocative sorrow of the earlier songs, but once again rising to a rhythmic and intense beat which peaked with 'Voyeur' which swayed to and forth from moody places to strong techno and industrial beats.

Almost apologetically, Blake introduced 'My Willing Heart' saying: "We haven't really played this song, until yet, but we're going to give it a go". Third time live. But predictably, there was nothing to be concerned about. His voice soared with angelic qualities and the audience was treated to another stunningly beautiful piece. This continued into 'The Colour in Anything', a soulful confession that captured the delicacy, melodic heights and extraordinary range of Aaron Neville and Jeff Buckley's voices combined. He then laughed with a "How are you feeling? I just hit you with a bunch of music, but I didn't really check on you after that. I just got into it. Alright. Yeah. I'll do that." And with that launched into the exquisite chords and vocals of 'Modern Soul', for me the highlight of the night.

James Blake
Photo credit: Margaret Court Arena

The audience erupted as soon as the familiar, quiet opening notes of 'Retrograde' sounded. This added a humorous touch to the looped humming tune he records and repeats throughout the track. Each time the humming was repeated, so too the crowd's roar. An unexpected and amusing bit of anarchy in an otherwise pristinely orchestrated experience. He ended the performance with a delicious rendition of Joni Mitchell's 'Case Of You', which appears on his 2011 EP, Enough Thunder.

Clearly Blake expected an encore, as he saved 'The Wilhelm Scream' a cover of his father's soulful song 'Where To Turn' (James Litherland). But to our delight, he remained on stage alone and served us a treat that had the hallmarks of a spontaneous reward for a night of shared emotional experience between the musician and his audience. Determined not to have a repeat of the audience's input to the loops in 'Retrograde', Blake urged us to remain silent so as not to spoil the piece. What followed was a truly magical spinning together of heavily layered vocals, one on top of the next, 'Measurements' from his 2011 self-titled album. This saw the journey end with a joyous mood, reminiscent of the heartwarming gospel harmonies of Alison Krauss.

Cloaked by darkness, Blake silently slipped away leaving his audience at the final destination, caught up in the rapture.

James Blake setlist:
1. Always (The Colour In Anything)
2. Life Round Here (Overgrown)
3. Chose Me (The Colour In Anything)
4. Radio Silence (The Colour in Anything)
5. Timeless (The Colour In Anything)
6. 200 Press (200 Press EP)
7. Limit To Your Love (Feist cover) (Overgrown)
8. Love Me In Whatever Way (The Colour In Anything)
9. I Hope My Life (The Colour In Anything)
10. Voyeur (Overgrown)
11. My Willing Heart (The Colour In Anything)
12. The Colour In Anything (The Colour In Anything)
13. Modern Soul (The Colour In Anything)
14. Retrograde (Overgrown)
15. A Case Of You (Joni Mitchell cover)
16. The Wilhelm Scream (James Blake)
17. Measurements (James Blake)

Some recent concert footage from BBC at Glastonbury:
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