“95% of you have been amazing.”
North London electro soul muffin James Blake is addressing a boisterious, sold-out Limelight 2 crowd towards the end of a set which has been observed with an all-too-familiar irreverence. Whilst tonight’s gig is not quite in the realm of The Tallest Man on Earth’s infamous shows in this city – who presumably got some sort of sadomasochistic kick out of all the fucks that were not given during his scatter of Belfast gigs – it is not all that far off. Now, far be it from this writer to ponder the merits of paying £22 to not pay attention to something (particularly as this writer managed to lose his ticket to the gig; literally lost it despite having put it in the middle of a book or similar obscure nook for “safe-keeping”; James Blake’s fourth studio album a concept LP about the irony of this situation and my subsequent commentary on Belfast gig-goers; a single tear running down his cheek), but such behaviour is, at the very least, curious.
It’s hardly in keeping with the spirit of Blake’s work to date: Brittle piano ballads which expose the heartstrings rather than pull at them, or fractured electronica given an almost uncomfortable amount of space in which to breathe. Indeed, even the latter numbers – plenty of which are given a reinvigoration tonight – are beats designed for the head first and feet second. Tonight’s oblivious crowd notwithstanding however, Blake is undoubtedly at his best when his songs are at their most claustrophobic.
Bolstered on stage by a two-man backing band (including sometime Airhead protagonist Rob McAndrews), celestial opener ‘Always’ is perhaps a perfect distillation of Blake’s sound; all flitting electronica, melodic piano and liberal sub-bass rumbles – but it’s the proceeding one-two that really marks the start of tonight’s gig. ‘Life Round Here’’s rolling chords and trip-hop beats are smoothly mixed into a no-fat rendition of the soaring ‘Choose Me’, freed from its wispy intro and extended into a dizzy synth jam. Similarly, Overgrown’s ‘Voyeur’ benefits from its clammy Limelight outing: quickly descending into frenzied sirens and rave beats – but the gut-punch highlight of tonight’s show is Blake’s rework of Untold’s ‘Stop What You’re Doing’, whose bludgeoning horns and lurching beats seem to be at the speed that tonight’s clientele were expecting. All props to the guy who declares “I’ve watched fuck all of this gig!” but Blake’s set tonight is more or less a greatest hits collection, save for a few ponderous moments from The Colour in Anything. The audience’s commitment to constant chatter is mind-boggling.
Given that subtlety is probably the watchword of Blake’s discography, it’s perhaps not surprising that, as well as beefing up some of his wirier tracks, some of his more foreboding numbers are turned on their head, and subsequently robbed of clout. ‘Timeless’ is given a few subtle key changes and lacks some of the bite it has on record, whilst a Justin Vernon-less ‘I Need A Forest Fire’ is placed in this set as a soothing palette cleanser, and is entirely pleasant. In the context of a generally well-paced set, Blake’s lightness of touch here is a welcome restraint.
If there’s one moment that seems to break the crowd’s pattern of Ruining It All For The Rest Of Us, it’s probably Blake’s standout individual moment – ‘Retrograde’ swells and unfurls, sounding suitably sinister for a 21st century love song. It acts as a primer for apparent slow-burn closer ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, where McAndrews in particular gives a relatively introspective number room-filling authority. After somewhat generously returning for an encore, Blake is determined to end tonight’s show on his terms – a cover of Joni Mitchell’s bruising ‘A Case of You’ is a surprise inclusion and an arresting reprieve.
Before final closer ‘Measurements’ plays out, Blake informs us that he needs to record a few loops of himself singing in order for the track to work, “I would normally just be quite passive-aggressive and try and ask you to be quiet, but I don’t think that tack’s going to work here – there’s only so many times you can ask. I’m just going to try it and if it doesn’t work i’ll just go”. We’re listening, James. We are the 95%.
James Blake photographed for State by Leah Carroll