If there were one artist who could transform the infamous Alexandra Palace into a pulsing warehouse, a festival’s main stage or a religious sanctuary all under one space, it would be none other than James Blake. Fine-tuning his balance as a songwriter, producer and instrumentalist, Blake is no longer the yet-to-be discovered alias posting his early re-imaginings of dubstep across online forums. The last decade paints a journey of fortified experimentation, a sound lost within tempo-bending and genre-crossovers, with garage, electronica, bass, soul and hip-hop to name a few. In many ways, James Blake is needless of an introduction.
2022 finds the British evocateur truly settled into his discography, now five studio albums deep and as daringly spontaneous as ever, despite the climbing risks that could anticipate at every turn. Nevertheless, most recent body of work ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’ pinpoints Blake at his most cohesive and vulnerable, opening up to the multitude of relationships that form the day-to-day and facing the toughened eyes of betrayal. The project was one of few ‘lockdown records’ that truly struck, not necessarily one to relentlessly crack a smile through the winter months of isolation, but moreso serve as an honest companion, sharing a universal pain.
It is for this reason that Alexandra Palace is filled to its brim with a crowd that comes together from all walks of life, both older and younger generations putting aside their seeming contrasts in taste. There’s Birkenstocks, there’s platform trainers and it is an unexpected summer’s day in London, one that forges a bank holiday shine across the room despite the hike to reach one of the UK’s most prolific venues. As a full-time LA resident these days, James Blake’s return to his hometown is one that could expect, and indeed did get sold out.
Support act KHUSHI, who Blake praises across his set, brings an assortment of his own material and leaves the audience with an ominously pacing beat, bolstering the night’s anticipation. The lights go up and one of two of Blake’s long-term musicians take their seat, revealing a stage readily equipped with drum kits, synthesisers and pedals, reassuring that although Blake’s discography is unruly in its direction, his live format remains untouched. Yet, one would think that Blake has been scouring the depths of Reddit prior, where studious fans demanded less covers, less crowd-pleasers and more core material – their prayers were answered. Taking to the stage for just over an hour and a half, the connoisseur of all moods weaved in between early electronic cuts and chilling ballads, unafraid to let each track breathe in its duration.
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In his modest entrance, Blake locks eyes with percussionist Ben Assiter, giving a ready-set nod into the bubbling synths of show opener ‘Famous Last Words’. Laid bare, Blake’s crystalline vocals pierce through the room, both haunting and graceful in their rise and fall. Quick to steer the audience into the career-defining ‘Life Round Here,’ there is an ecstatic contained energy amongst the crowd, well aware that Blake is strolling into his set with what could’ve been the night’s climax. “Oh my God… when you grow up here this is pretty overwhelming.”
There is an endearing appreciation for Blake’s musicians, one that shines brightest on ‘Before’ where a spotlight drops on Rob McAndrews, playing an incredibly tense cello that receives high praise from the crowds. Later, Blake reminiscences on the three’s union that routes back from the age of 12. “I asked them to come perform with me at my end of year performance, we got a good mark and we pretty much just went on tour from there and they’ve been with me ever since… never in our wildest dreams of imagination did we think we’d be sitting here.’
Across the mid-section of the setlist, the skilled multi-taskers dip into more electronic cuts from earlier material, where the likes of ‘CMYK’ and ‘Voyeur’ unveil themselves at their most potent, evolving further with added embellishments in contrasting textures and production. All three diplay a laser-focus in their craft, becoming increasingly intricate in detail as they delve deeper into each performance. Although sparing in set design, the stark, frantic lighting at best heightens the swelling journey of ‘Retrograde,’ serving as a real spectacle for fans, who remain completely immersed throughout.
As the night draws to a close, Blake invites slowthai for ‘feel away’, performing a touching verse face-to-face within the crowds who are surprisingly tame considering the Northampton mainstay has just hopped over the fence to stand amongst them. Closing with ‘Godspeed,’ Blake leaves the room with pure vocals and bare production, maximising his range in a very raw, intimate performance.
Sampling new material with the atmospheric ‘Death Of Me’, it’s unclear where Blake will take his upcoming project. In recent interviews, he’s detailed a shift away from songwriting and, in many ways, his sold out Alexandra Palace could foreshadow a return to the more electronic, production-focussed work that brought him to the forefront of British music. In his charisma, sharing personal anecdotes of having shared his first kiss 20 metres away from the very stage he stands on, there is no doubt that Blake’s strong following will place all their trust in his intuition.
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Words: Ana Lamond
Photo Credit: Josh Stadlen