James Blake: Express yourself

James Blake at the White Stage | Mark Thompson photos

James Blake doesn’t seem like the kind of artist who would headline a stage at a major music festival. His music is subdued, and he doesn’t possess the kind of personality that makes a show dynamic. Still, the White Stage field was packed for his Sunday evening show, and the audience waited patiently and quietly, because that’s the way he approaches his music.

Blake is at heart a soul singer with a close familiarity with the appeal of classic R&B, but he’s also a pianist who likes complex chord structures and elaborate arrangements. His fans appreciate his emotional directness, which comes through in his pure tone, but he likes his electronics, too, and sometimes his use of them is even weirder than Thom Yorke’s. The only other people on stage were a drummer and a utility player who could handle everything from cello to an elaborate bank of dials and buttons.

His affection for hip-hop is obvious, even if he lacks the kind of effusiveness required of hip-hop. He’ll never be a rapper, so he hires the best (Andre 3000 in this case) and even loops them for his concerts. And while subdued is the operative word, he can build up a head of steam and even jam when the occasion calls for it.

But it’s clear that what the audience wanted was the kind of cathartic emotionalism that made Blake’s name in the first place. He’s in his element when he’s heartbroken and ruminative. It’s an odd job description for a pop star, but you could tell the crowd was never happier than when he could barely express himself.