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.

James Blake

Sometimes circumstances conspire to create the perfect show. Though we’ve always been less than enthusiastic about the art of James Blake, the British singer who configures conventional R&B tropes into electronica expressions, we admire him for his earnestness and his ability to convey that earnestness into heartfelt emotion.


Circumstances did conspire on Friday night. The weather was partly overcast, but the setting sun made itself known. Moreover, Blake made it clear that regardless of the specific situations of which he sang, he was talking about things everyone could relate to. He thanked the audience in Japanese for showing up and said what an honor it was to play in Japan, as if he’s been asked to perform by the Emperor. But he was sincere, and that sincerity came through in interesting ways. On record you tend to notice the electronic processing, but live everything felt immediate and unfiltered. The lighting was clear and unfussy, and the sentiments were just as comprehensible. We stood on the top of the hill to the left of the stage, listening to those pure feelings for more than an hour and didn’t really want to leave. (text: Philip Brasor; photos: Mark Thompson)