The English jack of all trades delivered a wondrous performance that brought Friends That Break Your Heart (2021) to life alongside the renowned Hollywood Bowl orchestra.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
Earlier this year, Heaviest of Art covered Night 1 of KCRW's annual World Festival, which saw jazz virtuoso Kamasi Washington treat guests to a spectacle of communal excellence. Coincidentally, we returned to the Hollywood Bowl for the final night of the radio station's series of events in the form of an evening with the GRAMMY Award-winning James Blake. Surely enough, KCRW's festivities concluded as grandiose as they had commenced in ways that only Hollywood's premiere hillside venue could achieve.
James Blake, who's extended list of collaborators include Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and Frank Ocean, is a multi-faceted powerhouse of talent that excels at producing, songwriting, and more prominently, singing. With the arrival of his fifth studio album, Friends That Break Your Heart, set for this Friday, October 8th, Blake came together with conductor Thomas Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for an exclusive orchestral rendition of the musician's new standout hymns. Prior to Blake's stage appearance, Wilkins and his ensemble played a moving set of pure elegance and grace, allowing for violin melodies to flourish as they welcomed the incoming thousands while the sun was beautifully setting. After the orchestra concluded their introductory performance, an intermission followed and the crowds began filling nearly every seat of the shell shaped venue. Anticipation was running high and one could feel the excitement.
The lights grew dim and Blake walked in, met by a roaring applause that continued as the opening synth of Famous Last Words resounded through the Bowl with a spine-chilling production has a lot more heft via the live setting. More than it being a celebration of the new album, Blake played a career-spanning collection that pleased fans both new and old. Famous Last Words from the new Friends That Break Your Heart, transitioned to the synth heavy Life Round Here from Overgrown (2013), and then back to a new one, Life Is Not The Same, which preceded Feist cover, The Limit To Your Love, from 2011's self-titled. Blake continued in this vein and further proved why he's received the acclaim he has, seamlessly executing tracks from his origins under a new and more revitalized light that has come about in his growth as a producer, songwriter, and musician. It's been a decade since The Limit To Your Love arrived and
Like the mesmerizing Miles Johnston cover illustration that fronts it, Friends That Break Your Heart consumes and taps into your vulnerability, providing a platform to feel and let emotions run rampant. Famous Last Words and Life Is Not The Same are but a taste of what awaits all on the new record. Blake, with synthesizers, live drums, live guitars and all, gave every element of his compositional process the shine it deserves. Fans sitting nearby could be heard singing along each effort, moving their arms in unison and allowing the music to speak through them. Four tracks in and the mood had been set. It was time for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra to make their entrance and elevate Blake's vocal melodies to new heights.
What better way to kick off the orchestral showing than with Say What You Will, the strongest of the three singles from Blake's forthcoming effort. Not only does the track feature one of Blake's strongest vocal performances (ever), the Bowl's revered orchestra took it to ceremonial levels, letting the violins radiate throughout the venue. Light streaks shot across the sky, the stage was beautifully lit, and Blake's crooning of the title lines made this feel like a religious experience. It's moments like this that every fan and concert goer in general should strive to witness. Visually, sonically, and emotionally, the orchestral rendition of Say What You Will was a high point that I'll surely never forget.
The orchestra boasts an intentionality to their string arrangements and it was strongly felt as the night carried on. Blake mentions it only took them one single take to run through the show in preparation, which makes their achievement all the more commendable. I Keep Calling from the 2020 EP, Before, was the second to receive the orchestral treatment and like the predecessor, it was euphoric. Blake has been utilizing a wide light bar on both ends of the stage throughout his tour, but for this particular show, it was moved to the back, and rightfully so. The bar flashed and rotated colors for every consecutive track, amplifying each performance, especially the more upbeat ones like I Keep Calling.
I'll Come Too, a James Blake staple, received a classical touch with Wilkins leading the way for the track's foundational symphony. Vocal harmonies glistened as Blake grew with each chorus, instilling a need to sing a long and sway your head with the melodies. Retrograde carried this same evocative power, though in a much more haunting and serene fashion.
Of the many offerings Blake could've selected for the orchestral section of the performance, the options so far had been a perfect fit. The final number of this spiritual section of the show was his cover of Roberta Flack's The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, Arguably the best choice from his 2020 Covers EP, The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face is another testament to Blake's ability to turn everything he touches into gold. We had already been subject to the magic of Godspeed's live performance, but with a track of this magnitude to close the special occasion, Blake did so with an exclamation point that sets this particular show at the Hollywood Bowl apart from any of his other tour stops.
The orchestra may have ended their stay, but the band returned and the show went on with Blake still having quality tracks to give, like the following Frank Ocean cover, Godspeed. Dismissing this as being merely popular because of TikTok or Instagram would be doing a disservice to the power riding on Blake's reimagining. There's a vulnerability to it, a human element that transcends the medium in which it's heard. Once Blake let out the opening line, "I Will Always Love You", the crowd erupted and stood in support. From here, we left behind the tears and proceeded to the mellow Mile High, featuring Travis Scott and crisp production from Metro Boomin. Live drums gave it new depth and Blake's vocal versatility was placed on a pedestal once more.
Up until this point, the show had been at ease and very much powerful in a way that allowed for Blake's vocals to simply keep you gripped onto your seat. That all chanced for what came after Mile High was Voyeur, a bombastic and bass heavy offering that was met in energy by the accompanying lighting rig. Crowds got up from their seats and moved alongside the rhythmic wonder while green lasers and lights flashed in sync, akin to that of an EDM show. Anywhere you looked, the atmosphere was electric and joy ran through the venue. For as great you may think the digital version of the track may be, it lacks in comparison to how enthralling it plays live. self-titled gem, The Wilhelm Scream, came next and toned the crowds down back into an introspective state. Initially set up to the final track of the night, The Wilhelm Scream did its job and left many chanting for more.
Every memorable show concludes with an encore and Blake delivered with a blissful pair from 2019's Assume Form, Are You In Love? and Don't Miss It, the former of which is every bit as pristine as the studio version. The chiming electronics layered beneath Blake's crooning of the opening chorus is a moment in and of itself, even more so amidst the Hollywood hills. Don't Miss It, a track rooted in expression, drove home a message as the night came to an end. With a discography as varied as his, Blake could've capped it off in various ways, but he did so in such an awe-inspiring fashion that left audiences with more than just a great showing, but a heart full of love.
What transpired that breezy Saturday evening was nothing short of remarkable. Blake's compositional mastery was expanded upon under the ideal circumstances, that being a collaborative performance with revered Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, over 15,000 ecstatic fans in attendance, and exquisite lighting that matched the tone of each track being played. We'd be remiss not to mention that a Hollywood Bowl tour stop is unlike any other on an artist's schedule, but don't let that deter you from making your way to any of Blake's upcoming performances. His music is felt as strongly as it is heard and though we can spend another 1,000 words praising what Blake did that night, we rather invite you to indulge in it yourself. Friends That Break Your Heart is food for the soul and everyone present got a taste of the new era. What a time for music.
Check out the full Hollywood Bowl calendar of events HERE and get tickets to the remainder of 2021 performances, which include two nights of Tame Impala, The Neighbourhood, Dead & Company, and more.