Intimacy is a difficult atmosphere to create in the grandiose Alexandra Palace, but if anyone was going to give it a shot, it would be James Blake. Ally Pally’s high-ceiling, ornamented hall easily engulfs over 10,000 people. James Blake is 6’5, but he’s an ant on stage. Flanked by his schoolmates-turned-bandmates, in a venue that housed his first kiss and regular smoke sessions, Blake makes The People’s Palace feel like a family living room. The only issue is that he’s done it all before.
This is Blake’s second time at Ally Pally, visiting just last year touring ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’. I watched him sneak onto the stage, sing mostly stationary at his piano, then bid the crowd farewell. That suited the lyrical, introspective nature of the album, and indeed it worked for the romantic overtures of ‘Assume Form’ in 2019.
Is it too much to expect some more panache for an album that is Blake’s most significant foray into dance music yet? Blake’s understanding of panache was to hike onto the stage with a giant metallic structure on his back – and then ignore it for the rest of the setlist.
There were absolutely moments of beauty and bliss to be found. Contrary to last year’s disjointed setlist of deep cuts, covers, and favourites, Blake played through most of ‘Playing Robots’ with a handful of his best hits for the uninitiated. This time, it was as if to say: “I’ve been doing this shit since 2010”. Classics like ‘CMYK’ sounded even more joyous tonight; Blake’s performance of ‘Voyeur’ expanded its instrumentals into squelching acid house and icy techno.
Ally Pally’s sound system is excellent and captured all the details of Blake’s production. A quick wink to Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’, which unfolded into ‘Tell Me’ and its distinctive juttering refrain, was met with whoops and cheers from the crowd. There was also a nod to Jersey club as Blake transitioned from ‘Big Hammer’ into ‘Loading’, like a celebration of dance history both past and present. Let’s not forget Blake’s voice, which was on form for the entire night as he cooed through ‘I’ll Come Too’ and sang ‘Godspeed’ like a gospel hymn in a church of none.
Much like the album, Blake had the difficult task of working more sobering tracks into the setlist. He tried his best to ease us into it, but it’s a strange feeling to go from jubilant futuristic club bangers to a ballad about disappointing your dad, no matter how touching it is. The night ended with an encore of ‘Modern Soul’, complete with gorgeous visuals of glitchy, fragmented explosions. That’s the panache you want from an album like ‘Playing Robots’! If only it came earlier in the setlist.
It was a night that dutifully retraced the steps of Blake’s career into the versatile musician he is today, but it was also rather haphazard in its pacing. Ally Pally made a strong argument for what makes Blake such a revered performer; hopefully, he can push things much further next time round.
Words: Alex Rigotti