James Blake is feeling lucky, bar some tea gargling. Not lucky to “be alive”, as that would, in his own words, be “silly”, but lucky to be in Berlin, overcoming what appears to be a worrisome case of tonsillitis (again, his own words).
Berlin is lucky to have him. After a dismal 18-month break, Blake briefly toured the States in fall 2021 and has recently confirmed a handful of European dates for spring 2022. Berlin easily made the cut. “This is one of my favorite cities in the world. I want to return here for as long as I live,” said Blake midway through his May 7 show at the Verti Music Hall, where about 4,000 people from all walks of life kept screaming with excitement. The statement is hardly a surprise, considering Blake’s eternal affinity toward intricate narratives quite improbably glued together. If Berlin, with its uniquely multifaceted history, were music, it’d be something that came out of Blake’s fingertips. Also, the fact that he named his first famed EP, Klavierwerke, to honor Berlin’s legendary club Berghain is a bit of a clue.
Nevertheless, unlike the German capital, Blake is supremely capable of dis-and-reassembling the fragments of (music) history – and he’s well aware of this. With skills like his, it takes only him and two live collaborators on stage, Ben Assister on drums and Rob McAndrews on guitar/synths, to deliver astonishing compositions that belong entirely to Englishman’s singular vision. From shrill staccato techno to angelic hymnal balladry, often in the same song, Blake’s generalist musical wizardry is imbued with an entirely new identity live. In the darkness and depths of a large hangar, his music soars and drowns the crowd behind a wall of sound.
The “Friends That Break Your Heart Tour” name of the event is slightly misleading, as only three of 16 songs came from the musician’s latest album. That could have been interpreted as somewhat of a letdown, given that the 2021 release featured plenty of traditionally beautiful melodies which would have shot up live through Blake’s heavenly baritone. “Life Is Not the Same”, with its soul-crushing chorus in which Blake fails to understand abandonment comes to mind.
Still, there was no shortage of heartbreak during the evening. Around 8:00pm, the night started with a tender performance by Khushi, the musical project of Blake’s producer-collaborator Kalim Patel. A performer not too unlike Blake, Patel delivered gentle tunes sung over a piano (at least that’s how it was toward the end, as we didn’t get in on time due to long lines). The venue had already been half full, and the crowd reacted well, prompting Patel to invite all interested parties for a meet and greet by the merch stand.
A 30-minute intermission ended with a slew of vintage-sounding beats, which gradually grew louder until the entire hall went dark. Blake emerged in an oft-worn Mandarin collar and kicked the concert off with the haunting “Famous Last Words”, the third single off Friends That Break Your Heart. The audience instantly got into gear as “Famous Last Words” is about as typical of a James Blake tune as can be: tender but rippling, minimalist yet expansive, electro-heavy and progressing, but anchored in a solemn stasis with his celestial vocals describing the aftermath of a relationship gone wrong.
Though only 33, Blake is a ridiculously experienced and prolific performer. A classically trained pianist with a degree in popular music, over the past 13 years, he’s created a sound entirely his own through a mix of harsh electronica, deconstructed R&B, and spectacular vocal work steeped in melancholy and infinite sadness. Along the way, he’s picked up accolades. Kanye West called him his favorite artist. Most importantly, he created instantly recognizable music, his computerized nocturne becoming a genre in its own right. Friends That Break Your Heart is his most straightforward and unadventurous release to date, as close to a traditional, radio-friendly record as Blake will ever be. A sense of maturity that can only come with age is present throughout the show. It feels as if Blake has fully come into his own, commanding some mighty complicated melodies effortlessly.
Yet, while consistently remarkable, this music isn’t always fun; the monumental tunes concocted of many layers of oft aggressive sounds can all too easily collapse in on themselves. Fortunately, the trio onstage is well aware of this – the entire setlist is carefully arranged always to have a ballad followed by a clubbing-friendly song. Berliners are particularly grateful for this and vibe heavily to any brisker tunes. “Life Round Here” and “Before” come with plenty of swagger, even the usually still Blake cavorts to the rhythm. When he’s not sipping on tea, that is.
The herbal brew is, in fact, somewhat of his concert trademark. He’s English, after all, though that’s not the entire story. Tonight Blake is feeling chatty, cheeky even. He shares stories of his undying love of Berlin, his intention of delivering a “diverse” setlist to compensate for an overlong pause in touring. He cracks some jokes, most notably about battling a bad case of tonsillitis. Cue the joke from the beginning of this article. “I’m lucky to be here. I mean, not to be here as in “be alive”, but to be here in Berlin. I’m at 90%,” concludes the singer joyfully.
The audience is also in great spirits, laughing at Blake’s jokes, singing and dancing. “Say What You Will”, the lead single off of the new album, gets Blake to elicit a solemn singalong. The ballad is so breathtakingly beautiful that Blake can even be pardoned for the traditionally embarrassing “myself”-”shelf” rhyme in the lyrics, as the fans sing the verses back at the stage. “CMYK” is an always welcome escape into lowkey techno, an early highlight of Blake’s career as an electronica wunderkind, while the show’s high point comes about halfway through with “Retrograde”. As Blake shouts his way into the song’s chorus, white strobe light from the simple backlight panels blinds those present. The sensory attack confuses both the body and mind, another trademark property of Blake’s music.
Seeing Blake live, his delicately dialectical approach to composing becomes even more apparent. The crux of his expression has always been a (deliberately) fragile synthesis between aggressive, technical sounds offset by singing teeming with gentle emotion. This contrast is devilishly hard to put together, and Blake’s glory is remarkable for getting the balance right, again and again.
Another unexpected highlight is a “technically unreleased” (“well, this just mean it’s not released,” laughs Blake) song, “The Death of Love”, which samples Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” to astounding effect. As is often the case, the show ends with a string of covers, this time Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in the Summer” and Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”.
After about 85 minutes, the show ends with a brief encore and a poignant piano version of Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed”, which Blake delivers solo. The crowd is left emotionally exhausted but joyous and pumped to head into a breezy Saturday night. Chances are, some of them would encounter Blake for a second time later on in Berghain.