James Blake / Khushi Sony Centre, Toronto ON, February 27
Published Feb 28, 2019On a frost-ridden night of snow and slush, James Blake returned to Toronto with newfound voice in jovial circumstance. Jovial? Yes, because on Assume Form, James Blake manifests his work as he envisioned it. Less sticking in proverbial doldrums, more realizing his present reality and the joys that they might bring. If The Colour in Anything was a heartbreak record, Assume Form is its polar opposite, and at the Sony Centre for Performing Arts on Wednesday night, James Blake assumed.
The venue was certainly a step up for him, handily outsizing venues for previous trips. A dark backdrop painting the canvas behind the instruments set the mood. Beginning proceedings was the London-based artist Kalim Patel, known as Khushi, accompanying Blake for his North American tour. It was clear why he was cherry-picked as the opening act, with similarities immediately apparent to the headlining artist's sound. He performed a medley of songs including the recently released "Freedom Falls," a track from his upcoming album that was mixed by James himself — evidence for the alignment in taste.
A collection of synthesizers that would've made Brian Eno raise an eyebrow, along with drums and keyboards, were spaced across three platforms. James Blake took the stage to a rapturous response, illuminated by the blue lights reflecting on the draped backdrop. Accompanying him were childhood friends Ben Assiter and Rob McAndrews, both accomplished sonic auteurs as Mr. Assiter and Airhead, respectively. Wasting no time, the trio began with the album title track, a statement of intent.
It took a couple of notes here and there for Blake to really find his vocal stride, but when he did, it was pure with crystalline depth. The musical marriage of subsonic vibrations and emotive balladry pushed the Adamson sound system across the frequency spectrum, quickly highlighted as in "Life Round Here." Rounding out the tail-end of the track was a synthetic medley that rattled the rafters of the hall, unsettling a piece of stagnant confetti from some show bygone. At its conclusion, James addressed the crowd directly for the first time, asking if Toronto would be doing it the "polite way," pausing before motioning the crowd in a sort of shamanic gesture to rise from their seats.
"Timeless," one of a select few off of The Colour in Anything, followed, leaving the crowd utterly transfixed. For all of Blake's background in niche electronica, he now stands poised at the precipice of the mainstream, evidenced by the performance of his Travis Scott and Metro Boomin collaboration, "Mile High." As if on cue, an array of smartphones rose to take a snapshot of the moment.
"I'll Come Too," and the Rosalía feature "Barefoot in the Park" came next, putting the audience in a trance-y, amorous sway. The biggest cheers, however, came for "Limit to Your Love," one of the clearest remnants from his post-dubstep years. "Love Me in Whatever Way" was an understated gem, with smoke enshrouding the performers.
He carolled "Are You In Love?" grandly before segueing in to the sample-heavy "Can't Believe the Way We Flow" while cloaked in the bluely-irradiated smoke that settled on the stage before launching into new song "Loathe To Roam." It was performed skeletally to a swift rhythm, but it did feel slightly awkward wedged amongst the proclamations of love and melancholic orchestration.
"Voyeur" proved to be the strongest ode to club years, with a techno-esque arrangement that was solidified by a driving kick drum, acting as an unexpected highlight amongst the slower ballads of the night. "Retrograde" was teased patiently, before James' beatific vocal line was sang effortlessly above the brooding keys that affixed themselves beneath.
The slow looping vocals of "Lullaby for My Insomniac" cascaded upon one another in a moment of real beauty. Utterly silent, the crowd stood captivated in appreciation. Finally, without a word, James Blake and his band exited the stage for the final time as the looping vocals continued to ring out.