A long time ago – three years to be exact – Frank Ocean was in town for Splendour in the Grass but sadly, he cancelled his appearance at the festival and his Sydney sideshow. But in a beautiful coincidence, my brother had tickets to see James Blake perform at the Sydney Opera House that very same night.
That was the first and last time I saw James Blake perform. Sadly, I’m still waiting for Frank Ocean to return to our shores.
But this year James Blake returned to Australia for Splendour in the Grass and this week, we were invited to review his Splendour sideshow which was an intimate and inviting affair at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion.
We arrived early to catch a glimpse of support act Mark Pritchard and sadly, we were disappointed by his set. My friend described it perfectly throughout his performance saying things like, “I’m sleepy,” and “My ears hurt.” because it’s really what it felt like. To us, it was just a complete mess. His transitions weren’t smooth whatsoever and it just felt all over the place creating a soundtrack that was moody and sombre for the most part, not exactly the kind of act you want warming you up for the sounds of Blake.
A half hour interlude later and we see James Blake and his band walk up on stage right on time at 9.45pm, opening up with ‘Life Round Here’, where the crowd’s energy revs up and is clearly noticeable by Blake himself.
“It’s crazy that we get to play [to] this kind of crowd, all this energy… We haven’t seen it before in Australia, so thanks for being part of that. We’re gonna try and play as much new stuff as possible, and I hope you enjoy it.”
He then delves into performing ‘Timeless’, ‘Radio Silence’ and turning up a notch on the crowd’s energy levels with ‘200 Press’ from his 2014 EP.
It’s incredible to see him perform his electronica and house sounds with the live band. There are so many intricate layers to his sound that become magnified when you see him play live. The piano is ethereal, his voice alternatives between angelic and dark, the electronic rhythm clicks and pops, and his melodies and vocal loops are delicately layered between all of it. Every layer of sound is distinct and appreciated by every single person in the audience there to see him play.
He performs the title track from the latest album by himself under a single spotlight – just him and his acoustic piano: “I haven’t played this song in a little bit. We’ll see if it goes to plan.”
After that beautiful performance weighted with so much emotion, someone ruins the moment and yells out “Play it again!” which although was funny to us, perhaps wasn’t audible to Blake as he yelled it out a few times.
A piano interlude follows, drawing on elements of classical and contemporary, and this leads us into our favourite song of his, ‘Retrograde’. The impressive vocal hook materialises, flawless in its delivery, and loops (with the audience screaming repeating with each loop). He takes the underlying piano parts and changes them a little, so the song is subtly reshaped and it just has us listening to him in awe.
As he ends the set and thanks us, some punters walk out, thinking that the show is over and that there will be no encore, but we know better. As the lights don’t turn on and the crowd goes crazy for Blake to return to the stage, we see shadows grace the stage and once again James Blake returns to his piano for a one song encore, introducing us to his band and sharing a few extra special words for his family in the audience.
Videos and words by The 5 to 9 Life.
Photos via Howl and Echoes
July 26th, 2016