Published Oct 08, 2016"We're trying to do something as live as we can with this music right here," explained James Blake about halfway through his sold-out show at Toronto's Massey Hall last night (October 7). His recorded music, he explained, is largely electronic, but he was determined that his live performances feature no computers or synced samples. Everything was played either by Blake, guitarist/keyboardist Rob McAndrews or Ben Assiter, whose electronic drumpad triggered everything from percussion to vocal samples.
It paid off. While Blake's performances have always been quietly captivating, his latest found him switching gears frequently, mixing more emphatic club bangers in with his piano balladry as he pulled largely from his sprawling new album, The Colour in Anything. The three-piece were on individual risers, spread evenly across the stage in a simple setup that allowed simple but effective projections against the stage backdrop and emphatic, minimalist lighting to complement the performance.
They began strongly with "Always," as Blake, voice crisp and hearty, cooed "Effortleeeessss" in a way that sounded just so. Blake's voice was strong throughout the night, climbing all over the scales of "Life Round Here" and "Choose Me," the latter of which was lighted starkly and perfectly, a box of white spotlights above them casting austere shadows. A few enthusiastic fans stood from their seats to dance (and, here and there, to Snapchat).
After the urgent sirens of "Timeless," Blake finally addressed the crowd, but though fans cheered for nearly everything he said — "Easily pleased," Blake quipped after somebody yelled "Yeah!" for no reason — he's a man of few words. "Let's get back to it," he muttered before a stark and bassy cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love," from his debut LP.
A thudding, heartbeat-like rendition of "Love Me in Whatever Way" kicked off a highlight run of songs. The sweeping "Radio Silence" was an easy standout, the staticky climax buzzing through the crowd, but it was a live recreation of "Stop What You're Doing," a remix he created for London, UK producer Untold, that really showed what Blake's trio were capable of live. The stunning, bass-heavy piece was originally done digitally, but they brought it emphatically to life onstage, the pounding beat resonating and the lights strobing as Assiter shone on his kit. That they followed it with Blake's gentle "Forward," a gem he contributed to Beyoncé's Lemonade, and "I Need a Forest Fire," spoke to the show's sonic diversity and the band's adaptability.
The show had a few rare missteps. Blake had a little trouble hitting the "fire" note in the chorus of "I Need a Forest Fire," and it sounded maybe just a hint thin without Justin Vernon pitching in — Why not bring in opener Moses Sumney, who filled in perfectly on "Modern Soul" later? — while "I Hope My Life" lacked a little nuance, too pounding where it should have grooved. They recovered quickly though, with a nice transition into "Voyeur" that brought a rare, full dance party to Massey Hall and provided another stark reminder that Blake started in clubs, not concert halls.
Blake flubbed the intro to "The Colour in Anything" twice, forgetting the lyrics, but it being what he called "a pride thing," he started with the second verse instead, charmingly asking the audience to forget that the song had a first one. The end result was worth the wait.
It was "Retrograde," though, lent an almost boom-bap hip-hop sound here, that got the crowd dancing and nodding along again. It's Blake's best song, and undoubtedly a fan favourite. The standing ovation afterward made him obviously uncomfortable, but Blake, seemingly genuinely moved by their support, thanked the crowd, then closed with "The Wilhelm Scream," a song written by his father and covered on James Blake. Live, the quiet song built to a climax of chaos, all blaring white light and cymbal rushes, then pulled back to leave just Blake, a keyboard and a spotlight onstage; then darkness, quiet.
Blake's an incredible singer, songwriter, producer and arranger, and he showed Massey Hall a little of everything last night. So while "The Wilhelm Scream" would have made the perfect closing note, he bested it with a single-song encore, returning for a gorgeous, piano-and-spotlight rendition of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You." The mention of Canada, and the tumbling "Ooohh Canadaaaa" made the crowd swoon, and he received a final, well-deserved ovation.
Turns out he's a master of ordering set lists, too.