On Sunday night I went to watch James Blake on the first night of the UK leg of his Assume Form tour. Performing classic hits, new material and even a cover of hometown heroes, Blake proved his talents on multiple fronts. Here’s what I thought of a huge night for one of the country’s most unsung musical talents.
James Blake is a man who has always been a very humbled and understated live performer, his shows feel more like artistic pieces than your blueprint gig of singalong and jumping. When I saw him support Kendrick Lamar in the Manchester Arena during the 2018 DAMN. Tour, you could just tell how special he was in terms of power and pitch in his vocals, as well as passion and projection in his instrumentals. That supporting role felt more like a joyride of his most popular anthems, Sunday was a different atmosphere entirely.
Packing out the wonderful O2 Victoria Warehouse in Manchester, a venue that will host acts like Foals, Vampire Weekend and Shed Seven later in the year, James Blake walked on stage in dim lighting with his eyes firmly on the piano/synthesiser combination setup. He took his place on the stool and nodded to his two band members, one playing percussion and one playing guitar, he began playing the introductory piano chords of his set. An obvious candidate for the show opener, Blake opted for the title track and first song from his new album, Assume Form. The sampling was a lovely touch to the live setup and James sounded assured in his vocals, no sign of first show nerves on display here.
The three song run that followed was perhaps where the crowd were given most license to move around a bit. Following from the curtain raiser, he weaved his way through post-dubstep subtle bangers Life Round Here and Timeless to a great crowd reception before venturing into the next Assume Form hit. Ever since the album’s release it became obvious that there was one song to break through into the commercial masses: the Travis Scott and Metro Boomin featured Mile High. The song sounded so serene and chilling live with those beautiful panpipe samples and James Blake’s hushed tones in between the pre-recorded Travis Scott hook; something which was of course sung back at James by the joyous crowd.
Up next were two more new songs in the form of I’ll Come Too, perhaps one of Blake’s most wondrous vocal performances of the night, and latest single Barefoot In The Park. Alas there was another pre-recorded feature from Rosalia but the way it was mixed into the live setting made it hardly matter. Hearing James Blake sing in Spanish is enough reason to have enjoyed this live, but the song itself held such a commanding presence in a live environment with shimmering chimes and sub-bass from the backing members.
Then came Love Me In Whatever Way, an unsurprising favourite from his 2016 album The Colour In Anything; but most importantly to this show the track that demonstrated Blake’s ear for music to a T. His hums were orchestrated into the pulsing beat and piano chords with such seamless continuity and gave him free roam to pour his soul into the microphone. After this comes a loud cheer, all stemming from one press of a piano key. The reason for this? It was time for Limit To Your Love. The debut album classic was probably the most popular song of the set based on initial reaction and the performance didn’t disappoint. Those wobbly drum beats served as pacemakers for the piano, which sounded as grand as possible during this song; almost like an organ in a grand cathedral rather than a keyboard in an O2 Warehouse.
Next there was another Assume Form double header, and probably two of the songs I was most excited about seeing. Are You In Love? and Can’t Believe The Way We Flow were equally stunning as they were performed in the reverse order to how they are laid out in the album track listing, with the latter seeing Blake emerge from his seat and stand at the front of the stage to embrace and directly address his audience. His voice gave me goosebumps and the subtle echo added to his tones made it feel mysterious as well as angelic. This was perhaps the truest sense of Assume Form’s unrequited love topic that the whole show had to offer.
Remaining stood, James Blake proclaimed that his next song was a new one, called Loathe to Roam. It contained these whirring repetitive synth lines which steadily progressed as the song went on, reaching a powerful peak in the bridge when this biblical sounding dreamy synth kicked in; the atmosphere it created was beautiful. This felt very much like a song from the latest Mount Kimbie album, a project that James featured on twice, which probably suggests it was recorded in those sessions perhaps? It would be greatly appreciated if he were to release this song right about…. now maybe?
Then came Where’s The Catch? which I remember most fondly for absolutely belting out Andre 3000’s incredible verse, something which was played via a pre-recording but dubbed in with the beat; just to further highlight how brilliant Andre’s verse is. It was really great to see this live as it’s one of my favourites from the new record and it was executed precisely how I wanted it to be; but I can’t help but feel it’s thunder was stolen by what followed.
So, Voyeur started playing; the catchy post-dubstep bop from his Mercury Prize winning 2013 album Overgrown, and the crowd enjoyed the raw upstart in the production’s tempo. The first few minutes were typical James Blake build but after that drop in the song at around 3:10, he went wild. The lights flickered, the synths pulsed, Blake’s head bopped as he appeared to freestyle his way through a near 10 minute instrumental remix of his own song. It was a blistering experience to witness and for me the finest example of his musical magnificence.
Closing the set before the encore were two of Blake’s best songs in Retrograde and The Wilhelm Scream. The former was expectedly gorgeous and saw some crowd interaction as they sang the hums with him before having their breath taken away by the electronic build and James’ soothing vocal range. It was a great touch to end on The Wilhelm Scream, a song originally wrote and performed by his father in the 1980s before being made famous as a single on Blake’s debut album. The crowd gave him a rousing ovation as he made his way off-stage, well aware that while they’d loved what they’d seen; there was still more to come.
James Blake’s encore consisted of three songs, the first of which was Assume Form’s first single Don’t Miss It; an open and honest ode to his personal struggles with his mental health and how important it is for men to not cover emotions. It is a candid kaleidoscopic view into the mind of James and witnessing it live gave the song and the man performing it such power; he looked visibly moved by the performance, as did many in the crowd.
His second encore track was a cover, but not just any old cover. Being in Manchester, there was a truly special feeling when Blake began to play Joy Division’s legendary hit Atmosphere; and needless to say he knocked it out the park in his own marvellous way. Blake offered less sinister and more beguiling vocals than Ian Curtis’ original version and in turn gave the song the James Blake factor. This was a great touch.
The final track of James Blake’s set was Lullaby For My Insomniac, his last song on the new album and a truly fitting way to wrap up a triumphant show. His whimsical melody along with the understated production was a stellar way to provide the audience with a go-home moment; one that would fill their hearts with joy at the sheer passion and love in his words.
All in all, this gig was an ethereal masterclass in live artistic performance. James Blake and his band made an old, fairly cold building feel like the warmest place on Earth with enviable charm and captivating displays. The setlist was absolutely wonderful of course it was and the chronological order of them was brilliant, particularly the big hit medley at the start and the honesty and emotion of the encore tracks. I would have quite liked to have seen Measurements, Radio Silence and Overgrown on here but complaints can be very sparse given the level of enjoyment and inspiration I felt that fabled night.