Prior to his set at Splendour In The Grass, James Blake treated Melbourne fans to an unforgettable performance at Forum Melbourne (19 July), highlighting tracks from his latest release ‘Assume Form’.
For an artist that’s largely been associated with melancholia, ‘Assume Form’ is unlike anything Blake’s brought to the table before. It’s a triumphant and inspiring celebration of love, vulnerability, intimacy, and emotional growth, underpinned by Blake’s ever-evolving sophisticated approach to production and composition.
Accompanied on stage by drummer Ben Assiter and multi-instrumentalist Rob McAndrews (who also filled the night’s support slot under his producer moniker Airhead), the trio offered up polished and emotive renditions of the album’s stand-out songs. They breezed through title track ‘Assume Form’ and slow-burning trap number ‘Mile High’, followed by the floaty, summery vibes of ‘Barefoot In The Park’, ‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’ and ‘Are You In Love?’ later in the set.
Blake included some older favourites, like ‘Timeless’, ‘Life Round Here’ and his ‘Limit To Your Love’ cover, which evoked the feel of a jazz club drenched in bass. However, the crowd seemed just as engaged with the musician’s newer material – notably, a smile flickered over Blake’s face as the audience eagerly joined him in singing the chorus of romantic ‘Assume Form’ track ‘I’ll Come Too’.
The chemistry on stage between Blake and his band was palpable, with each member’s level of musicianship evident from the get-go. As Blake moved effortlessly from keyboard to synth while maintaining his iconic ethereal falsetto, Assiter made expert use of a digital drum pad in conjunction with a traditional cymbal setup.
McAndrews’ duty in the band lies somewhere in the realm of musical wizard. For the duration of the hour-and-a-half performance, the musician switched between electric cello, guitar and a variety of analogue synthesisers, including a hulking modular synth. Blake joked that the latter is a “nightmare” and that McAndrews is “basically an astronaut” for wrangling it.
The set was kicked up a notch when the trio performed unreleased track ‘Loathe To Roam’. With its fast tempo, throbbing bassline and creeping build-up towards a noisy, feverish climax, it was impossible to stand still. The track was followed up with ‘Where’s The Catch?’, complete with a sample of Andre 3000’s witty wordplay blaring over the top of a minimal synth line and hip hop drum beat.
A performance of dance banger ‘Voyeur’ marked another high point. The track led into an extended dance jam punctuated by floor-shaking bass and frenetic strobe lighting, transforming the Forum into what felt like a pumping basement nightclub in the early hours of the morning. The performance was made even more remarkable by the fact that there wasn’t a single laptop contributing to the immense sound coming from the stage.
The show started wrapping up with ‘Retrograde’ – obviously met with rapturous applause – and an intoxicating performance of ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, which culminated in a chaotic wall of sound thanks to McAndrews’ sweeping, post-rock-inspired guitar sounds.
In the encore, Blake gave a heartfelt piece of advice to the audience before playing ‘Don’t Miss It’, a melancholy track exploring his struggles with depression and anxiety. He encouraged punters to seek help and talk to someone if they’re experiencing mental health issues, stating that reaching out is “the reason I’m still here today”.
‘Assume Form’ is the product of James Blake coming to terms with his mental health struggles in exchange for love and openness, which was clear to see in his relaxed, comfortable demeanour on stage. As an extraordinary musician that constantly reinvents himself, it was an absolute joy to see him in his latest form – flourishing, present and happy.