James Blake‘s third album The Colour In Anything took him from a trendy electronic act to a singer/songwriter poised to be one of the most emotionally potent artists of our time. That’s not to say that he’s ditched his electronic roots. It’s that balance between the electronic and the organic that separates him from everyone else making heart-tugging ballads. Blake’s Splendour appearance this year proved that he was just as capable of delivering intimacy as he was beefing it up for huge outdoor audiences. While his Sydney sideshow was a smaller crowd than his amphitheatre-filling mass at Splendour, it was still a huge crowd but Blake made us all feel as if we were face to face with him.
No matter how sprawling the sound gets at a James Blake show, he always has a no-frills approach. He walked on-stage casually and perched himself at the keys with a drummer and a guitarist/synth player to his right. He got straight to it, filling ears with the sounds of Life Round Here. On record, Blake’s songs have a minimalistic restraint to them. They’re contained and subtle but in the live arena, they’re bolstered. From the first beat to the last beat, the ground shook as the speakers pulsated. It was so affecting that it was difficult to ever pull yourself out of the moment.
The only time Blake paused was to have a short chat. He juxtaposed the intensity of his music with a casual manner that felt genuine and charming. He promised that he’d play as much new music as possible and he did exactly that easing us in with Radio Silence, Choose Me and Timeless. “I can’t believe that you don’t want to see me,” he sings on Radio Silence. It’s some of his most direct lyric work to date and that shined through live. The new material made space for his vocals and sent shivers down the spine when he scaled up to that haunting falsetto.
Seeing Blake live is a completely different experience to listening to him on record. Everything is amplified from the rushing synths to the layered vocals. The rollicking bass of Limit To Your Love rattled inside the chest and the vocoder used on Lindesfarne 1 filled the room and silenced any other voices in the crowd. All the songs played off his first album felt as if they’d matured from the first time he played in the country back in 2011. They carried with them an emotional weight that was previously marred by technical problems and insecurities.
The subtler moments of the set were made so much more beautiful as they were bookended by his club detours. The ground-shaking 200 Press which at times mimicked the impact of a plane taking off was followed by the intimate Limit To Your Love. The synths at the end of Love Me In Whatever Way rushed leading up to the pounding club vibes of Voyeur and then that song and the tracks surrounding it provided some of the most spectacular moments of live music in Australia this year. Synths swirled and a horn oozed out across the crowd as a hypnotising light show blurred Blake up on stage. We were immediately transported to the early hours of the morning in a club when bass replaces lyrics and your mind departs your body. Amazingly, he landed us with the most straight-up ballad of the night The Colour In Anything. “How I told you what I’d do if one day I woke and couldn’t find the colour in anything,” he sang, placing everyone’s heart in their throat made even more effective as he’d activated everyone’s emotions with the musical climax of Voyeur. It’s somewhat hard to put into words just how beautiful this moment was, as the crowd stared mostly in silence with some softly singing the lyrics.
From that moment onwards he could’ve done anything and the crowd would’ve still been eating out of his hands. He had everybody captivated and only furthered that with the soulful runs of Retrograde. He moved from crisp, clear vocals to distorted synths once again offering a version far more powerful than the studio recording. He left the stage briefly following but as a man who likes to create little fuss outside of his music, he returned to the stage promptly looking almost embarrassed that he’d even attempted the naff break before the encore.
Wilhems Scream closed out the night, as he noted that he had family in the audience. Once again, he distorted his vocals and the synths creating a musical atmosphere that felt as if it could burst at any second. Eventually all the sounds fell away and he left us exactly how he greeted us with just one beat and a voice. We’d come full circle, only everyone was far more vulnerable following all of his heart-tugging.
The difference in Blake’s performance from last time he came to Australia to now is astounding. As The Colour In Anything suggests, he’s got a new emotionally maturity and he hides less behind dense instrumentals. He’s just as confident tugging hearts with his vocals now as his is with his sprawling soundscapes. Usually when an artist leaves the stage chatter fills the room but everyone walked out for a moment speechless. He’d silenced everybody and that’s the mark of a gig that was not just good but remarkable.
Photos by Bianca Bosso