9th April | O2 Academy
Photos: Hannah Rooke
James Blake sold out both of his Bristol dates at the O2 Academy, and the fact that 80% of the crowd only turned up ten minutes before his set speaks volumes. Fans flocked for Blake and Blake alone – teeming like a shoal of hungry fish ready to swallow up his signature, lo-fi electronics and caressing vocals.
Supported by Londoner Khushi, who battled against issues at the venue but salvaged from the remains a couple of beautiful tracks with oriental string sections, Blake opened his hour-long set with the title track of his 2019 album Assume Form. As soon as the opening piano chords struck, the crowd swelled. But as Blake ran straight into ‘Life Round Here’ (his single with Chance the Rapper in 2013) it was clear something was amiss. His three-man set-up across keys, drums and guitar seemed slightly out of whack – huge delays hindered the impact of the kick drums, while the rumbling bassline genuinely got me worried as to whether the separation bars would disintegrate in my palms.
‘Mile High’ gave the sound system to Travis Scott’s solo feature which echoed wonderfully through the rafters at the O2. But again, as soon as the bass came in (which it does hard on record, anyway) Blake’s vocals were swallowed up whole, and it felt just a little uncomfortable. My personal highlight from the album, ‘Barefoot In The Park’ featuring Spanish singer Rosalía, just about carried the weight it deserved – Blake opened with his own vocals and retained the eloquent Spanish-sung mid-section, but something still felt a little flat. It was, all at once, under- and overwhelming.
At the close of ‘Limit To Your Love’, Blake switched from the keys to standalone vocals front and centre stage, which seemed to ease the technical issues and huge reverb on the sound. The latter half of the set felt more authentically Blake; the background noise muted ever so slightly and the brain was given a chance to absorb the full impact of his voice. Flicking between Assume Form and Overgrown – a six-year gap between the two records – Blake breathed new life into classic tracks like ‘Voyeur’ and fan-favourite ‘Retrograde’ while solidifying his complex new tones in ‘Where’s The Catch?’
Blake ended his set retrospectively with a three-track encore, while those of us who forgot to bring earplugs wondered if this was the gig that would finally send us spiralling into life-long tinnitus. The technical issues really dampened what could’ve been a show fizzing with fireworks, and despite Blake’s competence as a live performer, he couldn’t quite bring his set back from the brink.
See the video for ‘Mile High’ (feat. Travis Scott & Metro Boomin) here: