Live performance can often be a good moment for reflection and reappraisal when it comes to an artist’s work. James Blake has never been a slouch in the studio, having impressed audiences for years with his off-kilter combination of “post-dubstep” and R&B. Nonetheless, I was going into his show at Shed 10 in Auckland, New Zealand with some negative biases, having felt a little lukewarm about his latest record Assume Form on its release. It goes without saying that Blake was in form, enhancing those tracks beyond my initial impressions and delivering a stellar performance overall.
At the start of the night, clad in a bucket hat and casual wear all in a shade of dark green, Te Awanga native Connan Mockasin had a beautiful tenor and fragile acoustic passages to share with the audience - although judging by the crowd’s noise levels, you’d think they weren’t interested. Maybe some people took Mockasin’s comments on “catching up” while he was playing a little too seriously. In any case, ears perked up when Blake appeared in advance to provide harmonies on Momo’s, and a sly cover of Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You reinforced his Kiwi roots and humour. An antithesis and a surprising complement to both Blake and his sound all at once, it’s no wonder the two found kindred spirits in each other, and have collaborated in the years since Blakes' third studio album The Colour In Anything.
The dichotomy of James Blake lies in his “electronic soul”, an endearingly clumsy vulnerability clashing with ethereal melody and carefully constructed soundscapes.
When a live audience makes it a trichotomy, ballads can get left by the wayside. Such was the case with Are You In Love, and its uncharacteristically guitar-driven intros, being drowned out by light heckling - not the most ideal experience by any means. On the other hand, beat-driven tracks - like an almost 10-minute rendition of Voyeur - were given room to breathe, with Blake and his team of multi-instrumentalists replicating as many idiosyncratic details as possible. The amount of variety on display, without sacrificing the emotional potency of each song, was a gargantuan task made effortless.
Despite a scarce amount of audience interaction - and a self-aware wit about it - Blake has a commanding stage presence. Even when Mile High and Where’s The Catch came in with Travis Scott and Andre 3000 features respectively, they never detracted from Blake’s leading light. Mishaps with a microphone early on were met with a laugh, and Blake gently yet firmly chiding the audience for their treatment of Mockasin showed he had a bite to him as well. It’s a refreshing level of deftness and charisma from a major artist so associated with introspective songwriting.
Yet in an odd way, in spite of the fiery enthusiasm of the crowd and Blake’s humble demeanour - repeatedly calling it an “honour” to play for us - finally seeing him live was a melancholic experience. Perhaps at some point, I mistook introspection for introversion, because James Blake’s music feels just as insular and delicate to me on stage as it does on record, to the point where even cheering could upset the balance in any way. It’s one thing to be proven wrong about an artist’s work upon reflection, but it’s another to be humbled by an audience in the moment.
In the end, no matter how conflicted my thoughts may be about the night's performance, maybe it’s fitting that one of the most soft-spoken artists in today’s industry was met with one of the most roaring ovations.