James Blake at Harbour Events Centre, 3/23/19
If you parse through media coverage of James Blake, you’ll find the word “ethereal” comes up a lot. It’s no wonder why.
In his music, Blake’s haunting voice remains a constant. Amidst a swell of keys, percussion and bass, his voice often rises above it all, reaching otherworldly heights while Blake’s particular blend of hip-hop-infused electrosoul swirls below.
Performing for an excited crowd at a casino-turned-venue on the edge of False Creek, the British performer’s distinctive voice broke through the ether early, and often.
Accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Rob McAndrews, who played everything from keys to cello to electric guitar, and Ben Assiter on an electronic drum kit, Blake began his set with the title track to his latest album Assume Form – where he just so happens to sing about “leaving the ether.”
He then moved onto the hypnotic fan favourite “Life Round Here” off 2013’s Overgrown as dizzying lights pulsated around him. The crowd responded with whoops of delight.
After the release of his fourth full-length record in January, Blake now possesses a long list of songs from which to choose. However, on this night, he focused on his most recent work, performing nearly every track on Assume Form. Besides the Feist cover “Limit to Your Love,” Blake notably didn’t play any other songs off his breakout self-titled debut.
But the audience didn’t seem to mind. Folks went wild when Blake launched into “Where’s The Catch,” a banger off Assume Form that features a “heady-ass verse” from André 3000. The sparse but soulful “Are You In Love?” – another highlight from this year’s record – elicited a similar reaction.
“Are you in love? Do your best impression for me,” Blake sang. The crowd didn’t hesitate.
At one point, Blake apologized for having to previously reschedule Saturday’s concert after he got sick earlier this month. He spoke about experiencing an “existential crisis” when he didn’t know if his voice was going to get better because, he said, this is the only thing he knows how to do.
“At the time, all I really wanted to do was my sing my favourite songs,” Blake said.
Then, finding himself alone onstage, Blake performed a stirring cover of the Joni Mitchell ballad “A Case of You.” When he sang, “I drew a map of Canada, oh, Canada,” the audience cheered in response.
Blake finished the evening with the closer to his most recent record, a song called “Lullaby For My Insomniac.” He started it off by recording loops of short, wordless chants in various keys. He then layered them. The finished product sounded like it came from the halls of a monastery, though one where Blake was the only monk.
Google Dictionary defines “ethereal” as something “extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.” Yeah, that sounds about right.