With two critically acclaimed albums to his name, James Blake has spent the past few years building up a reputation as one the finest talents around, and thankfully these talents translate effortlessly to a live set. His music always presents a sense of fragility that could easily make for something of an awkward evening, but his strong vocals and even stronger production captivate tonight’s crowd from the offset.
The set opens with the haunting line of ‘my brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them’ from I Never Learnt To Share, an album track from his self-titled debut. This initially seems something of an odd opener, until it becomes clear that it’s actually an excellent way to showcase exactly what his music is about. The song’s first half features beautifully understated lyrics and gorgeous vocals, which is followed by a second half that drops into a sudden and intense electronic beat. There’s an eccentric feel of intensity as the song builds to its climax, allowing Blake to prove himself as something of a unique artist at the top of his game.
He’s joined onstage by only two band members (drummer Ben Assiter and guitarist Rob McAndrews), giving the stage a charming air of simplicity, but the three showcase an impressive variety of tone as the night goes on. There’s a thumping R&B groove present on Retrograde, whilst the robotic delivery of Lindisfarne is oddly charming. Old favourites Limit To Your Love and The Wilhelm Scream are obvious highlights, but an emotional cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You stands out amongst the more tender moments of the evening.
There is only really one criticism that can be directed at Blake as a live performer, and it’s how often he mumbles his way through words. The lyrics are captivating and stunning in recorded form, so it becomes a great shame that they’re so difficult to hear properly in a live performance. By no means does it ruin the night, and if anything it’s impressive that it’s the only minor quibble.
Support for the evening is provided by FKA Twigs, who makes up for poor stage presence and obvious nerves by having a formidable voice and some pretty excellent songs. She’s backed with heavy synth chords, and there’s a feeling of a modern twist on Massive Attack to her. Having seen so many support acts fail to make any impression on a crowd they’re desperately trying to entertain, it was a pleasant surprise that the night was kicked off so impressively.
The undoubted highlight of the night comes at the very end with Blake’s encore. He returns without Assiter or McAndrews to perform ‘Measurements’ in a delicate, stripped back form and it’s nothing but sheer perfection. Having silenced the crowd, he loops his vocals until he’s harmonising with himself, and it makes for one of the most mesmerising gig experiences we’ve ever had.