James Blake triumphs despite a muted Melbourne crowd

James Blake triumphs despite a muted Melbourne crowd

Photo: David Harris
Photo: David Harris
Photo: David Harris
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Words by Sebastian Dodds

Silence on the dancefloor?

James Blake deserved a better audience than the one he got on Saturday night. It’s hard to say exactly why the crowd at the Forum appeared so utterly unimpressed by what was a tight, confident performance. Maybe we can blame the unremarkable DJ work by opening act Airhead; maybe the room were all wishing they’d nabbed tickets to Splendour. Or maybe the muted response is indicative of how ephemeral and often undynamic Blake’s most recent record, Assume Form, is.

In any case, when you’re three quarters of the way through a show and the artist starts playing their dancier tracks – riffing quite successfully on their danciest sections – and the most those lucky punters in the front few rows can muster is anaemic swaying in the style of those ‘90s hipsters from the Smashing Pumpkins episode of the Simpsons, you know something has gone wrong. Credit to Blake that it never seemed to affect his onstage mood.

At one point in ‘Limit to Your Love’ (an absolutely standout rendition of a song Blake must surely be sick of playing), the couple standing in front of your humble reviewer turned around to advise that singing along wasn’t welcome. Not exactly the kind of crowd interaction you’d hope for as a fan, and hardly the kind of atmosphere you’d expect at any live performance.

Tracks from 2019’s Assume Form made up a predictably large portion of Blake’s performance. It was a shame not to have live vocals for songs like ‘Where’s The Catch’ (though any performer would be loath to have to live up to André 3000’s pure charisma) and ‘Mile High’, but the excellent rapport of Blake and his band more than made up for any loss there.

It was fun to see the onstage trio play straight through ‘Love Me In Whatever Way’, ‘Are You In Love?’ and ‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’ in rapid succession, the last bars of each song blending into the first of the next. It was also easy to tell the band was enjoying the flow of the triplet, with both Mr Drummer and Mr Multi-Instrumentalist grinning as they went.

‘Wilhelm Scream’ was another highlight, with Blake dedicating the performance to his late father (and writer of the original), James Litherland. But instead of melancholic, the dedication played as triumphant – a chance to bring his dad into the room with us.

The expectation of an encore has become a tired trope for live music performances, but at least Blake managed to eke out something interesting from his return to stage. We heard a beautiful performance of ‘Don’t Miss It’ in almost complete silence, with all of us holding our collective breath at the gorgeous lushness of the sound.

Better still was the night’s final song, ‘Lullaby For My Insomniac’, a song whose title is terribly twee for such a seriously beautiful composition. Blake set up his vocal loops for the song live on stage, with a smirking request to the crowd that we keep it down, because “If you yell something out, I’ll have to start again”.

He needn’t have worried. Chastened by the militant shushers, we maintained a polite silence.

Highlight: ‘Where’s the Catch?’

Lowlight: The audience.

Crowd Favourite: ‘Retrograde’