With so many hometown festivities packed into the weekend—from a hopeful Astros playoff series, to numerous Oktoberfest celebrations, to Saturday night's cosmic outing with Tame Impala—Houston was in need of a cooldown come Sunday evening. For those familiar with the alleviating tunes and live show of James Blake, it was rather obvious that the House of Blues was the ideal place to find such a thing.
Hailing from London, the now 31-year-old Blake first made waves back in 2009 with a string of self-recorded releases that showed off both his remarkable vocal talent and his unique production style. What quickly followed were several critically-adorned full-lengths (in 2010’s James Blake and 2013’s Overgrown), a host of collaborations (from Bon Iver to Beyoncé), and a general crowning as one of popular music’s true prodigious talents—even once being hailed as Kanye West’s favorite artist.
With his work often veering into the world of electronica and post-dub step, James Blake has managed to create his own unique brand of futuristic R&B—one of emotionally-open lyricism and a reputation for the melancholic side of life. To some, these tunes may hit a little too deep. Yet, as has been made clear by his massive success over the years, plenty of followers continue to seek out anything Blake is offering—allowing his voice and music to satisfy whatever emotional quota they need to fulfill.
Sunday night’s Houston crowd were certainly among this pack. From the moment that Blake appeared on stage, the House of Blues audience was at attention—knowing exactly when to shower him with praise and when to keep silent (something that can be quite difficult to achieve here in Houston). This surprising level of respect shown throughout the night ultimately allowed Blake to do what he does best, and take Houston on a soothing journey through his catalog of sentimental ballads and moody bangers.
However, as the audience quickly found out, this night wouldn’t be exclusively filled with Blake’s characteristically somber offerings. Instead, the set would primarily focus on the songs of Assume Form, Blake’s fantastic 2019 full-length that finds him in a far more content space—a departure from the anxieties and heartbreaks that have consumed so much of his catalog (which as we have since found out is thanks in full to his budding romance with actress, Jameela Jamil).
For instance, with early offerings like “Assume Form,” and “I’ll Come Too,” Blake’s signature brand of heart-wrenching/piano-based melodies we’re certainly still intact. Yet, in paying closer attention to the subject matter, there was a newfound sense of positivity in his words:
I will assume form
I'll leave the ether
I will assume form
I'll be out of my head this time
I will be touchable by her
I will be reachable
This thematic change certainly had an effect on the room—allowing for an even deeper connection between Blake and the audience, and ultimately making for the most enjoyable James Blake Houston show to date.
Something else that was made apparent early on was Blake’s vast musical range. While he may be most often associated with lullaby-like tunes that place his voice in the forefront, Sunday night’s set featured plenty of electronic-based firepower. Between Blake’s hefty synth set-up, the electronic kit of drummer Ben Assiter, and the massive analog modular synth of Rob McAndrews, Blake and his band mixed in numerous beat-heavy tracks throughout the night, such as “Timeless” and the always-potent, “Life Round Here.”
Making these songs even more stimulating was a strobe-heavy light show that followed each downbeat like a pulse. Very few artists (if any) are capable of making such a transition—going from gospel music to house music in a matter of minutes. Still though, even with the set’s up-tempo moments, Blake’s trademark baritone and stripped back instrumentation managed to keep a continuous sense of calm in the air.
As mentioned, much of Blake's reputation over the years has come from his work in the studio—namely writing and producing for some of hip-hop’s finest. In doing so, more and more collaborations and features have appeared in his own work, especially throughout Assume Form. Most notable of these being the Travis Scott-featured “Mile High,” and the Andre 3000-featured “Where’s the Catch”—two tracks that have gone on to rack up tens of millions of streams since their January release. While most refrain from performing feature-heavy songs in a live setting, Blake embraced the opportunity, ultimately making for two high points of the night.
Knowing very well he was in the epicenter of peak Travis Scott fandom, Blake kicked off “Mile High” with Scott’s verse echoing throughout the room—a party trick that gained an expectedly passionate reaction from the audience. By the time his own verse came in, Blake knew he had the audience in his grasp.
Similarly, “Where’s the Catch” found Blake layering a track of Andre 3000’s verse over his keyboard play (knowing all too well the effect that the ex-OutKast frontman can have on a live setting). Given his arsenal of similarly-exciting moments to sprinkle into his set, it’s no surprise that James Blake’s live show has earned such a high reputation over the last decade.
Blake finished off the nearly-two-hour set with a four-song encore that included both a stripped-down version of Don McLean’s “Vincent” as well as Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” However, the most memorable moment of the night came during a monologue about Blake’s past issues with depression, in which he urged the audience to end the societal stigma of bottling up feelings, and to instead find someone to speak freely with (as he wished he had done in his 20s). On paper, this may seem as no surprise coming from a young guy that makes his living from emotionally-vulnerable ballads. However, for those in attendance, it was a genuine moment shared between an especially-receptive audience, and a guy that undoubtedly felt this unique connection.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.