Live Review: James Blake, Airhead

22 July 2019 | 2:02 pm | Nick Gray

"Huge grins abound from the band members, and you now see why they’ve stayed such a tight unit through all these years."

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Rob McAndrews has been labelmate, band tour member and confidante for our headliner since the early 2010s, helping with production work, performance and arrangement. Tonight he’s DJing as Airhead, as a low-key opener for James Blake. Stylistically, McAndrews mines those similar sonic palettes with uncompressed 808s, cavernous rim clicks and piano. It’s a subtle but sure-footed set for the most part, and he departs the stage as unceremoniously as he entered. 

It’s strange that an artist like James Blake is still playing theatres instead of arenas given the immense shadow his output has cast over the minimalist introspections of music this decade. The Greco-Roman balustrades and quasi-marble sculptures that overlook the Forum stage offer a decadent and appropriate environment for Blake’s oeuvre tonight though, and theatres do tend to suit his stage production.

Blake kicks off with the title track from this year's critically acclaimed LP Assume Form. His eternal bandmate McAndrews is cordially bowing a digital cello and live drummer Ben Assiter issues forthright kick drum hits to anchor Blake’s doleful chords. Blake's experience moving to LA during the sessions for 2016’s The Colour In Anything seems to have left traces on tonight’s set, through the flashing blue and red police lights - the airier, looser presentation of songs, his newfound fondness for buzzy summer moods and ability for banter. “Somehow we found the only place in the world where it’s cold in July,” he quips.

Another welcome change is how bass-heavy the set is. The Colour In Anything’s Timeless and 2011’s Feist cover Limit To Your Love rattle your heart through the bottom of your chest and the set is all the better for it. His closely guarded personal relationship with girlfriend, actress and activist Jameela Jamil has also had a heady and integral influence on tonight’s proceedings – that's apparent when Blake stands up from his keyboards to take centrestage and sing Are You In Love? backed by McAndrews’ romantically picked guitar style, an unprecedented move that pays off in droves. A new Brexit-themed track, Loathe To Roam, gets a thrashing, borrowing punk-tinged cathartic energy from kindred souls Mount Kimbie’s 2017 record Love What Survives. A two-song stretch with Where’s The Catch? and Voyeur flex the trio’s 1-800 Dinosaur club muscles, pounding the packed room’s disciples with pummelling synth arpeggios, frantic hi hats and McAndrews' wall of modular synths. Huge grins abound from the band members, and you now see why they’ve stayed such a tight unit through all these years.

Retrograde and The Wilhelm Scream close out the main set with spectacle and aplomb, but it is Blake's encore monologue about male mental health and suicide that levels the room, and not a soft cough or scrape of a tinnie can be heard. Don’t Miss It is the centrepiece and mission statement of Assume Form, the song some critics dismissed as more "sad boy music", but which truly operates as an ode to not letting anxiety and depression make us miss life’s cherished, important moments. A cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You closes the night with familiar warmth, and the extended bows Blake gives the crowd show he’s feeling particularly grateful for our company tonight.