Review by Grace Hood-Edwards
Photography by Mandie Hailwood
As we were ushered in from the rain on a nippy Wednesday night, it felt like walking into an underground rave – rather than a James Blake concert. Hosted at Shed 10, with odd spacey EDM playing in the interlude between opening act Connan Mockasin and James Blake certainly set a unique atmosphere.
Blake entered to discordant chords and smoke filtering over the stage, wearing an understated green windbreaker atop a black turtleneck. Setting off with the titular track of his most recent album ‘Assume Form’ Blake’s signature crooning was instantly recognisable, even in this album’s more upbeat packaging. The audience was ready to party. A large cheer rose up at the synth opening to ‘Life Round Here’, and when the heavy beat came in the audience began gyrating. Blake’s voice is gentle, like a stroke, as he sings “everything feels like a touchdown on a rainy day/part time love is the life ‘round here’. In a sudden switch, a deep bass siren which is muted on his studio recording plays and the lights flash a deep red and blue as the bass hits. Blake immediately shrugs on the persona of a DJ at a (key)board, before falling back into the lilting tones he is known for.
In this warehouse setting, it is easy to say that Blake’s work – particularly his newest album – fits right in with the surge of the UK grime genre. Although, you wouldn’t have thought to put this label to Blake in previous years, there are clearly heavy hip-hop/R&B influences throughout this concert. This seems natural for an album that has evolved from The Colour of Anything, after he produced for Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott and Beyonce’s Lemonade.
It is a very intriguing set. The heavy bass that pervades through tracks, such as ‘Mile High’ rattles the corrugated iron walls of Shed 10 for an interesting effect. The rap-heavy collaboration with Travis Scott and Metro Boomin segues into the quasi Christmas Carol angelic falsetto opening of ‘I’ll Come Too’. Blake loops that humming that is reminiscent of an old movie and sings overtop. He has a lovely tone with a great little rasp to it. His mic blew out for one moment, but that meant the crowd only cheered harder when a soundie came on to fix it. ‘Barefoot in the Park’ comes quickly afterwards, featuring vocals from Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía. The track has some great layering to it, with dimensions that feel different live than they do on the album. As the song draws to the close, a great rushing sound begins to wash over the audience, and the intriguing acoustics of Shed 10 provide an almost surround sound like effect. It would be good to note that however interesting a venue Shed 10 is, the stage needed to be raised higher. Being halfway into the crowd was enough to lose sight of the stage and its performers. It was a lucky fact that Blake’s performances don’t really feature any stage play other than the music itself.
There is a realisation partway through Blake’s ‘Limit to Your Love’ that this is quite a cool concert. Blake moves easily from a bluesy piano opening into a really fun drop with the drums. Set off-centre at stage left surrounded by his sound deck and keys, Blake feels more like a conductor of this musical experience, than a performer. ‘Love Me in Whatever Way’ starts with a thumping beat like a heart, and is soon joined by Blake’s ghostly falsetto which he begins to loop repeatedly. Blake has a real talent for melding his silky vocals to a deep grunge, easily dipping in and out of styles. As the song builds Blake draws the audience’s cheers as he moves into a strong belt that resolves into a very lovely drawn out note.
With a brief “thank you so much” to the crowd, Blake steps out of his sound-castle and takes the mic at the front of the stage for a more acoustic rendition of ‘Are You in Love?’ As he serenades the audience in this particularly romantic ballad, Blake’s vocal mixing sounds effortless as he balances on the edge between feathery falsetto and raw-edged melody. Blake stays upfront as pink light floods the stage for the very tropical R&B opening to ‘Can’t Believe the Way We Flow’. The song switches to this discordant synth on the line “when you’re not around” which has the whole crowd writhing. The moment Blake switches back to the original sway of R&B, he takes a step back from the microphone – hands behind his back with a small smile – as he listens to the pre-recorded backing vocals. He only steps back to sing a very light falsetto note to end the song.
James Blake’s next track – the unreleased ‘Loathe to Roam’ – is a rather personal one about coming from a small island. The heavy uptempo beat matches the flickering lights from the back of the stage, which give the dazzling impression of Blake being underwater. The song is stirring, dragging the audience back and forth like the tide. The song decrescendos till it’s just Blakes’ humming and a low vibration left, before picking right back up as Blake moves back to the keys to play a vibrant, frantic ending.
‘Where’s the Catch?” begins with a nice isolated piano, before the full force of the bass, and Blake’s vocals, kicks in. It’s a great flitting in and out of styles, with a sudden intermittent introduction of autotune that fades by the time Blake gets to the beginning of the next line. Blake himself begins to groove along in his seat to the nearly-basic electric beat that he introduces partway through. ‘Where’s the Catch?’ features André 3000 in a high moment rap verse that gets the crowd dancing wildly. As James takes the reins back, his gentle vocals can’t help us suffer a moment of whiplash at the drastic gear change that is a key element to Blake’s creations.
Eerie green light and a low humming bass – like a foghorn call – usher in the manic dance tune of ‘Voyeur’. A cowbell like striking sets the beat, and the whole crowd starts moving faster and faster with the bass as it picks up pace. This moment feels like the rave this venue promises. The tempo keeps rising, Blake’s hands spidering over the keys. It breaks out into a spacey expanse, with the cowbell rattling akin to a skeleton playing its own rib bones, before picking back up into the thumping bass. This instrumental rises and falls for a good many minutes, building anticipation repeatedly until we’ve already half-convinced ourselves that Blake won’t push us over the edge merely for our own self-preservation. The track slows like a mechanical toy running out of steam only for Blake to crank it right back up again to a peak where the audience yells out, expecting the drop.
It never comes, and Blake ends ‘Voyeur’ very suddenly. Blake’s music characteristically has a lot of great building moments but no real drops, always pushing the audience right to the edge then drawing back suddenly. This was no exception. Nevertheless, the crowd is not disappointed, as loud cheers and whistles are heard. As the crowd dies down, that inevitable dude from the back corner yells out “We really love you James!”
To follow this high moment, Blake plays his classic hit ‘Retrograde’. A deep red fills the stage, and the audience can be clearly heard as they belt the lyrics to this fan-favourite. The drummer, Ben Assiter, shares a grin with Blake as the audience really gets into the song. He ends with huge applause and can’t hide the smile on his face as he thanks the audience saying “You guys are so sweet.”
In spite of announcing that ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ a track written by his musician father that he “kinda fucked (it) up”, Blake stayed for two songs for the encore – ‘Don’t Miss It’ and ‘A Case of You’. Blake repeated his thanks to Connan Mockasin multiple times, letting us know that we “should be more supportive to homegrown acts. He’s one of the greats”. This is a lesson that NZ keenly needs to learn about supporting the arts and the artists that we produce here.
Although Blake himself proclaimed then apologised (very British) for not speaking enough during his concert, flashes of humour definitely emerged along with some good pearls. Following an important and heartfelt few words about reaching out to people and climbing out of a difficult emotional low – a trajectory Blake’s last two albums aurally represent – Blake offered us any song we wanted – as long as it didn’t have “drums, bass or synth”. He segued into a powerful rendition of ‘Don’t Miss It’, just a simple piano line and Blake’s angelic voice soaring.
Blake thanked us again “for all (our) time” before slipping in an apology about the cricket – saying we should have won, it was a technicality. The final song of the night saw Blake haloed in blue at the keyboard, leading us into a final moving cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’.
James Blake hosted an understated and humble show that displayed powerful musicianship and was, surprisingly, very fun!