Those escaping from the night’s weather into Melbourne’s Forum Theatre may have expected a similarly chilly electronic performance from James Blake on Saturday night. Known for his emotive harnessing of sharp electronica, R’n’B and UK dubstep, Blake very well could have given a performance as clean and sterile as some of his earliest material. However, after this year’s Assume Form, an emotional pivot was on the cards.
Rob McAndrews as Airhead opens for Blake and gives the night’s performance the feeling of a family gathering. Airhead has an origin in 1-800 Dinosaur, the same DJ group established by Blake, McAndrews and others back in 2011. He moves through a seamless mix of UK house, dubstep and electronica, an unassuming figure mixing calmly on the far side of the stage. With a wave he’s off, and eventually the house lights dip once more.
Regardless of Blake’s penchant for morphing his sound, his staging remains the same as it has for years. Three pillars – McAndrews (back again on support instrumentation and keys), percussionist Ben Assiter, and Blake – partitioned squarely across the stage. It’s a subtle but powerful bit of design, giving full view to the mess of synthesizers, strings and drum machines available to the band. McAndrews makes use of an imposing analogue bank… thing, through which he harnesses and loops Blake’s own voice (among other sounds) in real time, whilst Assiter’s setup blends drum machine and cymbals alike.
The power of Blake’s music is its skeletal nature, allowing for flexibility in the details. Live, synth passages swell and morph, and songs merge one into the next, McAndrews and Assiter finding spaces within the structures to weave into. Blake’s voice still remains the wind through which all else rises, the texture of his lower register giving way to effortless, warm falsetto. Voyeur from 2013’s Overgrown gets an extended club re-do; Blake’s been doing this particular song live for years, but its pulsating house beat completely envelopes the space. Above the band, smoke is captured in the lighting, swirling in a light purple haze.
In an unexpected move, mid-set Blake is out from behind the keyboards and standing centre stage, solo on the microphone. He gives a stripped down performance of Are You In Love? from this year’s Assume Form; the record was a transformative one for Blake which expanded the emotional scope of his sound – he’s in love, and the new confidence bears a willingness to try new things.
Musicians can struggle to come out from behind their instruments, and tonight Blake is still getting used to the feeling. He stands a tad awkwardly, but to see him take such a step is still inspiring, like watching the growth of a performer in real time. This shift reaches its peak in the performance of new song Loathe to Roam, a driving, vast, danceable synth-pop number which feels as though Blake were taking cues from Springsteen or The War on Drugs. He only returns to the keys for the song’s outro, contributing to an immense conclusion.
All around, the scope has been expanded significantly: a set of almost two hours’ length, experiments with live looping, the newer frontman-esque quality to Blake’s presence. Tonight he’s more open, personable, and these new songs simply part of his renewal. Blake speaks openly about conversing with his mother on the adaptation of his father’s music for The Wilhelm Scream, his experiences of depression after Don’t Miss It, experiments with a new instrumental approach on long-time cover A Case Of You – and even jokes about YouTube comments which called him “boring”. There’s a liveliness to his approach which evades the ‘paint-by-numbers’ setlist of hits and fan favourites – its an exploration of music and growth as it relates to Blake himself.
He closes with a live construction of Lullaby For My Insomniac, harmonising with himself over a fading guitar. It’s a sombre and poignant finale, standing alone, again at centre stage.
I suppose you could expect the live performances of a record like Assume Form to be imbued with the album’s elements of self-discovery, but the expansion and availability of emotion that Blake has achieved as a performer – from his beginnings as a somewhat chilly electronic pianist extraordinaire – is nothing short of astounding.
Assume Form by James Blake is out now via Polydor.