thu 25/07/2024

James Blake, Alexandra Palace review - victory lap for North London native | reviews, news & interviews

James Blake, Alexandra Palace review - victory lap for North London native

James Blake, Alexandra Palace review - victory lap for North London native

New album is his best in years and live show does it justice

Thibaut Grevet

James Blake’s sold-out show at Ally Pally is his only UK stop this tour and it feels like a homecoming of sorts – while Blake now lives in Los Angeles, he is from Enfield, only up the road. “I can’t explain how meaningful this is” he said half-way through, “I had my first kiss 25 metres over there.”

Blake is currently touring his sixth album, Playing Robots Into Heaven, released earlier this month. Robots is a blockbuster of electronic music, with ambitious art direction and a track list that gleefully mixes four-to-the-floor house with trappy-dancehall and ambient experiments. This is James Blake going back to dance music with the heft (and budget) of now being: James Blake, The Super Producer. 

The album has gone down well with critics and fans. If the sold-out venue is anything to go by, I’m not the only one who thought it was his best album in years.

But before Blake is on, introspective techno-producer Actress takes the stage. He stands over the decks under a red glow, like a dark sorcerer. Swirling ambient morphs into stuttering techno but before you know it, it’s over. It’s a good set, but the ambiance would have benefitted from the lights being turned down and the sound being turned up.

By the time Actress steps off, the crowd has grown and you finally get the sense that there are 10,000 people in attendance. I saw a guy type 40 x 10000 into his calculator. The result shocked him.

As the lights dimmed and the melancholic modular-synth loop of “Playing Robots Into Heaven” started, Blake entered the stage looking like he’d walked off the Robots album cover, wearing the bulking installation which has been central to the albums visuals by Owl & Crowns and Thibau Greve. It looked comically heavy, but the theatrical flair added a sense of occasion to his homecoming show.

After dismounting he got straight into the pleasant album opener, “Asking to Break”. But it is the tight shuffle and chipmunk vocal sample of “I Want You to Know” which really gets things going; “I just wanted you to know, that you are really special” the crowd sang back at him.  

On stage was Blake behind two synths, Ben Assiter on drums and Rob McAndrews AKA Airhead switching between guitar, bass and tinkering on a table of machines. All the music was live, as Blake was keen to point out: “There’s nothing going on behind the scenes, there’s no laptops or some weird, automated shit you can’t see, this is all 100% live.” It’s a slightly luddite statement for a professional electronic musician, but the sentiment still stands: the way they were able to recreate every texture of James Blake’s music was wildly impressive.

When he dipped into his back catalogue, he went for the tried and tested classics, playing his Feist cover “Limit to Your love” and “Life Round Here” early on. He did “Retrograde” beautifully and even threw it back further with “CMYK” and his remix of Untold’s “Stop What You’re Doing”. The most stunning was perhaps the extended version of “Voyeur”, where Blake and co. fully morphed into a big-room techno jam-band, the break down lasting nearly 10 minutes.

Almost completely absent from the setlist however was Blake’s two previous albums, 2019’s Assume Form and 2021’s Friends that Break Your Heart. It makes sense given his older electronic music is more in dialogue with his latest album. But those albums were hugely successful and I wonder if there were some disappointed fans in attendance. When he did play the devotional love song “I’ll Come Too” from Assume Form it was warmly received, although the cutesy “I do, I do, I do” chorus was a reminder how conventional those two albums are in comparison with his old music.

After 90 minutes, Assiter and McAndrews left the stage and let Blake have the spotlight for a rendition of Frank Ocean’s “God Speed”, the neo-gospel song he has a writing credit on, as well as Robots piano driven “If You Can Hear Me”. After all these years Blake’s delicate but powerful voice can still stop you in your tracks. The stunned silence of the audience was something to behold.

As Blake bowed out (after an encore of “Modern Soul”) it felt like a victory lap for Blakes excellent new album – but also for his career so far.

After all these years Blake’s delicate but powerful voice can still stop you in your tracks.


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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