2016 has been a busy year so far for James Blake. When he hasn't been hosting his own show on BBC's Radio 1, he's found time to release his third album 'The Colour of Anything', appeared on Beyoncé's 'Lemonade', and most recently appeared at Splendour in the Grass earlier this month. His show at Thebarton Theatre late last week was the last of his three Splendour sideshows, and while the venue wasn't sold out, the crowd that was there caught an artist at the peak of his power.
upport Act Mark Pritchard put in a set that was full of bravado and dare. Over the course of an hour, his uncanny ability to shift from Venetian Snares styled drum breaks, to club grooves, to dub was but a brief glance into the mind of a 25 year veteran of electronic music. While the diversity of the set was a strength, it was also a flaw; Pritchard's shifts between styles would occasionally disrupt momentum that had been created by the prior atmospheres.
A very humble Blake admitted that the night would be mostly dedicated to cuts from 'The Colour of Anything', with set opener 'Always', 'Modern Soul' and 'My Willing Heart' capturing the audience and flourishing in the expansive hall of Thebarton Theatre. Older material such as 'Life Round Here' and 'Retrograde' sent the crowd into a rapture each time, while his acclaimed cover of Feist's 'Limit To Your Love' brought on a glorious frenzy, particularly when the bass was introduced.
In a period where such technology is so readily available, it would have been easy for Blake to perform by himself, with nothing more than a laptop and piano. Blake himself was readily aware of this, and noted towards the end of the set that there had been years spent painstakingly working towards this end goal. Blake was complimented by guitarist/keyboardist Rob McAndrew and drummer Ben Allister; with the sheer power of the trio on display throughout the night, it was a case of less being more.
On 'Timeless', Allister's hi-hat trickling added an extra depth of tension that let the song attain a climax otherwise unachievable without it, while McAndrew's liquid guitar lines added another element of beauty across the set. Attention must be given to Blake's solo cover of Joni Mitchell's 'Case of You', the last song before a short encore. Stripping the sound down to piano and his vocals, Blake flexed his raw power as a singer, before departing the stage to thunderous applause.
After the band returned to the stage for their encore, they dived into set highlight 'The Wilhelm Scream'. After building slowly, the song erupted into a gorgeous yet blistering passage of noise that recalled My Bloody Valentine at their prime, courtesy of McAndrew and Allister cutting loose. 'Wilhelm' was such a high point that the night could've ended there. But, as McAndrew and Allister departed the stage a second time, Blake asked the audience for their absolute silence, before wrapping up the show with 'Measurements'. Similarly to 'Case of You', it was indicative of Blake's vocal strength, layering vocal lines until Thebarton Theatre's speakers threatened to burst.
After building to such a dynamic, Blake recognised his due to depart, leaving the vocal loop to continue to fade out. It was a unique approach to ending such a show, but much like Pritchard's stylistic diversity undermining his set earlier, Blake had unintentionally stumbled. While it was a slightly underwhelming end to the night, Blake and his band created atmospheres in their music that were so emotionally raw, spellbinding their audience in the process.
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All photos by Jason Katsaras