Review: James Blake at Thebarton Theatre

A generous schedule of Splendour in the Grass sideshows allowed UK producer and crooner James Blake to finally make his Adelaide debut last night (Thursday, July 28), but filing into the Thebarton Theatre it was unclear how he’d be rewarded for the effort.

On the one hand, hefty triple j support for earlier work like The Wilhelm Scream and his prominent, heart wrenching contribution to Beyoncé’s smash LP Lemonade would theoretically guarantee a decent turnout. On the other, his brand of experimental, occasionally knotty electronica somewhat undercuts his potential for the mainstream success enjoyed by similarly dulcet contemporaries like Justin Vernon. As such, it was only a semi-filled floor that greeted UK DJ Mark Pritchard in the opening slot with a bass-heavy set. Truthfully, as the sub frequencies rumbled through the floorboards causing knees to wobble and teeth to chatter you couldn’t help but spare a moment for the Thebby’s structural integrity – surely this kind of stuff just wasn’t a consideration during construction in 1928. At any rate Blake seemed humbled by the moderately sized but enthusiastic crowd, quickly winning them over with the mesmerising 2013 cut Life Round Here. He then announced, almost apologetically, that much of the night would be spent exploring May’s The Colour in Everything. The contrition was unnecessary, as much of the crowd were obviously keen to hear newer material like Radio Silence, Love Me in Whatever Way and Timeless unfold in a live setting. Backed by a lean set up of just two bandmates, Blake recreated the broad electronic palette of the album entirely live without any automation or laptop assistance, economically delivering all the tickling hi hats and whooshing digital organs you would expect. An early highlight came with his hit cover of Feist’s Limit to Your Love but even more resonant was Blake’s closing number, a quietly powerful solo version of Joni Mitchell’s Case of You. After a brief break the trio turned their gaze back to 2013 with Retrograde, prompting an outburst of applause as Blake began to sing the distinctive vocal loop that introduces the song. As he continued to layer his voice the cheers looped around with it again and again, adding an unintentional sitcom flavour to what is otherwise one of his strongest creations. Left alone once again for his final song, this time Blake took the time to warn the crowd that he really needed to concentrate to complete the loop. And, as the last track proved, it may end up sounding “terrible” if the crowd weren’t quiet. Obligingly the audience maintained pin-drop silence as he layered harmonies for acapella lament Measurements. It was only when the fourth layer revealed the woozy strength of Blake’s deeper register, rarely emphasised on record, that one excitable crowd member let out a single “woo”. But as Blake retreated from the darkened stage leaving his bed of vocals, and her exclamation, continuing to swirl overhead, who could blame her? It was a pretty “woo” worthy moment. Live image is of James Blake performing at Sonar Festival last month. Image via Shutterstock. 

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