Montreal welcomed James Blake with open arms at a striking concert on Oct. 10.
English musician James Blake wears many hats, notably being a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer and DJ. His last visit to Montreal dates back to 2019, when he performed at L’Olympia on Saint-Catherine. Back at this very venue four years later, James Blake came to town following the release of his sixth studio album Playing Robots Into Heaven out on Sept. 8.
The return to electronic roots follows up on his 2021 album Friends That Break Your Heart which did not receive a live show in Montreal. Long time fans and admirers of Blake’s music journey were ecstatic to finally see him in the flesh, this time to experience “a little bit of everything,” as Blake himself put it. The tour started off in Europe in mid-September and will end a month from now in Los Angeles, California where Blake is currently based.
From his emergence in the dubstep scene in South London, James Blake has since contributed to countless artists’ projects as well as collaborating with many others from different realms of the music world. The list includes Beyoncé, Rosalía, André 3000, Metro Boomin, Kendrick Lamar, Mount Kimbie and Bon Iver, just to name a few. Blake is renowned to be a chameleon of his own calibre, and comparing him to anyone would be unfair.
After an hour’s wait in the front row, the unannounced opener of the evening walked onto the stage. For about half an hour, electronic producer Rob McAndrews under the alias Airhead—Blake’s childhood friend who has worked alongside him for many years—offered the audience some electro-ambient tunes from his recent project Lightness full of varied tempos, reverb and bass with catchy guitar riffs.
After Airhead had left the stage, the very last track of Blake’s brand new album resonated in the entire theatre, announcing his composed arrival on stage with a smile and waving hands. His station was to the right of the stage, with a keyboard and synths at his disposal. Opener Airhead was back for a second shift, this time handling the modular synth and guitar on the far left, which left the centre space for the drummer.
The soothing and experimental instrumental track transitioned to “I Want You To Know,” a track with an equal amount of gorgeous harmonies and synths with experimental electronic touches. Some of the prominent bass in most tracks also pierced right through my body, making the whole room appear to be vibrating.
The singer pleasantly surprised everyone by playing “Godspeed” by Frank Ocean, which he wrote, as well as doing an acapella and piano version of “Say What You Will” right after fans asked for it to be performed. Songs from his new album continued, but key tracks such as “Love Me In Whatever Way,” “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow,” “Retrograde,” and “Limit to Your Love” from past albums were also part of the setlist. The gifted artist concluded his concert with an experimental high-tempo remix to finish the night on a high.
James Blake’s singing was controlled throughout the entire show, conveying lyrics full of introspection and pensive vulnerability while he simultaneously played the keys. Effects ranged from soft and delayed vocals to more powerful and raw singing. Opposed to the so-called “sad boy” title that some people have given him, Blake confidently shares melancholy and heartache messages without being “afraid of being seen as weak or soft,” as he expressed in a 2018 tweet. To this day—and all over his stage presence at L’Olympia—Blake is in tune with himself and proudly exchanges his catalog with the crowd.
One of the key takeaways from the concert, which made it extra special for me, was the decision to not incorporate any computer in the live performance despite it being a heavily electronic set. As for stage lighting, the simple but effective use of light bulbs around the perimeter of the theatre’s structure created this tinted barrier of light play between the crowd and the artists on stage. The audience, and me included, vividly cheered and eagerly clapped in between each track. Blake commented on the passionate response saying that he and the band were more than happy to be back in Montreal.
“We got off stage and we all said to each other this is just the best gig we’ve done in ages,” James Blake expressed to the audience when returning from the encore intermission.