words: Sarah Rix & photos: Nate Hill @natehill
“… He’s always had a spectacular voice, but now – and with his fourth album – he seems to be more confident in putting it on display.”
James Blake instills a sense of awe. The English musician is undoubtedly talented and not one to rest on his laurels, constantly introducing new elements and approaches to his now-distinctive blend of electronic R&B. It can lead to an all-consuming, methodical approach to a live show, stripping back the usual necessities of an entertaining set in favour of more measured delivery. Every note has its place and Blake, the conductor of his three-man band, is the “head-down, get-to-work” captain.
At some point, you’d like to assume James Blake will switch up his opening act. I mean no offence here, but for a while, now, he’s relied on a DJ set from Airhead to start the evening. And as I said before – Blake doesn’t seem to be the sort of musician to rest on the status quo, so it’s a bit of an odd/easy choice.
Easy, yes, and almost certainly convenient, as Airhead’s a member of his touring band and does an impressive job on modular synth. For a sold-out Friday night crowd, though, there wasn’t enough of a connection between the opening musician and audience to warrant much of a positive response. Instead, the crowd took the opportunity to chat through his moody, ambient mixes so even if you wanted to immerse yourself in the music, you were probably instead stuck listening to some punters discussing their friends’ hot takes on Splendour in the Grass.
Airhead did have some capacity to surprise, though. Occasionally, the quieter lulls led into big moments with a beat – the equivalent to getting kicked in the shins with the reminder that ah, yes, you were indeed at a show. Mostly, though, it was an unassuming way to lead into the evening – his half-hour set ending with an unassuming clap and nod to those conscious enough to look up to the stage to see his quick departure.
Bringing January 2019’s Assume Form to Melbourne for the first of two nights, James Blake had no trouble in holding the audience captive. Much of this owes to the 30-year-old’s well-honed voice, which came through The Forum’s sound system in such a smooth, crystalline way that you could have spread it on toast.
He’s always had a spectacular voice, but now – and with his fourth album – he seems to be more confident in putting it on display. Title track and opening number “Assume Form” was a smart start, its sparse drumming offering plenty of room for Blake to shine.
It was a smart choice, too, to follow it up with “Life Round Here” from his 2013 Mercury Prize winning sophomore effort, Overgrown. It offered an instrumental push mid-way through, the stage awash with red lights.
This pull and tug colours all his offerings – striking the balance between Blakes’ very human voice and the electronic instrumentals he crafts so lovingly. It’s probably one of the reasons why he’s become a go-to producer for so many A-list rap and R&B artists (including Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and JAY-Z.) It’s all so rich, complex, and layered on its own, but its also all crafted with a voice in mind, allowing each collaborator to lay their distinctive tone to it.
“Mile High”, another new track featuring Travis Scott, was steeped in hip hop sensibilities – though Blakes own vocal contributions pointed to the continued blurring of lines in music genres, as much alt-J-like in its delivery as anything else.
“It’s like we found the only place in the world that’s cold in July,” Blake told the crowd five-songs deep in his 17-song set. “What a time to be here.”
It’s perhaps this point in the review that I should get personal and also note that I’m starting to think I’m allergic to The Forum. For the second time in three weeks, I found myself on the venue floor – once again passed out for some unknown reason. Thankfully, James Blake fans are very sweet people and the circle of concerned patrons around me were quick to grab water and make space. So thank you, everyone, and apologies for interrupting “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Limit to Your Love”.
My imminent medical issues aside and following a hasty exit from the crowd, it was still nice to take in the Blake show from the back of the venue. Blake freed himself from behind his keyboard for “Loathe to Roam”, a song about being from a small island. This move to standing made it all a bit more present, less robotic – as beautiful and enthralling his music is, a prioritisation of precision does not make for a particularly dynamic live show.
This was something he built into throughout the night, however, and Blake definitely got into meatier electronics as the night built up. His set climaxed with “Where’s the Catch?” (featuring a backing track from André 3000); an extended rendition of “Voyeur”; and “Retrograde”.
Throughout the night and the duration of his 17-song set, Blake held the crowd’s attention span incredibly well. There’s hope, too, that perhaps he’ll consider more frequent visits to this side of the world.
“I live in LA now, so it’s actually only an 11-hour flight,” he joked with the crowd. “It used to be 24-hours and I used to resent that. I’m not going to lie.”
While he’s adept at building up to big moments and it’d be easy to assume that over the course of a decade-long career, he’s grown comfortable with and confident in his offerings – it was also nice that he chose to open the space to discuss mental health for his two song encore (“Don’t Miss It” and “A Case of You”, from 2011 EP Enough Thunder.)
He introduced the subdued affair with the acknowledgment that it was probably not Friday night encore material, but that it’s important to open up discussions around things like anxiety and that people – especially men – should be encouraged to share their feelings and get assistance from those around them.
It was an entirely present moment from a man continuing to shape the direction of electronic music, and an important piece of encouragement that everyone needs to be reminded of.
… I should probably get that fainting thing check out though, too.