Frank Ocean, gentle R&B voice, finds live intimacy at NY festival
Frank Ocean has captivated audiences since his debut with his tenderness, a gentle but unwavering voice in the often hyper-macho world of R&B and hip-hop.
Nearly a year after he released his long-awaited second album, “Blonde,” Ocean has presented his ever-patient fans with a live vision of his music, one that creates a kind of cinematic intimacy.
Headlining the first day Friday of Panorama, a year-old festival on New York City’s Randall’s Island, Ocean shunned the stage — which became a giant audiovisual project — as he performed in the round from an island in the crowd.
Ocean emerged to the boisterous beats of his track “Pretty Sweet” before immediately dialing down the exuberance with “Solo,” his bare, organ-backed confessional on embracing solitude.
Clicking a button on a mountain of equipment, Ocean appeared on the stage-screen in grainy footage akin to an old home video. But soon it became a slick, real-time concert movie with shots of Ocean and cheering fans fading into each other and occasional bursts of color including Ocean’s signature orange.
A rare performer
In a hint that the show may eventually wind up in a new form, director Spike Jonze filmed Ocean up-close through the entire set with a steadicam — a scene that could have figured as a subplot to his movies “Her” or “Being John Malkovich.”
Ocean has returned from a three-year touring hiatus but is only playing a handful of shows. Only two are in the United States; the other one, a week ago in Los Angeles, again saw Jonze trailing Ocean a well as a cameo appearance by Brad Pitt.
Ocean — who made waves in the hip-hop world in 2012 by declaring that his life’s first love was a man — delivered a statement for the current political moment by wearing a T-shirt that read: “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you can just be quiet?”
Ocean reconfirmed the emotional power of his falsetto on tracks such as “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” one of his best-known hits, infused with a jangly guitar by stage guest Alex G.
Yet the band and Ocean veered out of step at points, with the perfectionist singer himself acknowledging to the crowd that the show remained a work in progress.
The show culminated in a surround sound, rare for festivals, as instrumentation from guitar riffs to organ boomed from alternating speakers.
Closed stage and memorable dance moves
Panorama was inaugurated in New York last year by the promoters behind Coachella, the premier festival that takes place each year in the California desert, as the market for live music thrives across the United States.
Panorama suffered a setback Friday as an indoor, air-conditioned concert stage was damaged. Fan footage posted online showed the wooden floor breaking open during a packed performance by rapper Isaiah Rashad.
No one was hurt but the stage was shut for the day, forcing cancelations of sets by prominent hip-hop producer DJ Shadow and French house DJ Breakbot.
Frank Ocean was preceded on stage by another leading figure of alternative R&B, Solange, who brought brassy takes to last year’s album “A Seat at the Table,” an introspective tour through the state of black America.
With a stage resembling the flag of Japan, Solange and her eight-piece band had a touch of Prince as they played decked out in matching red outfits and Solange showed off free-flowing dance moves from fluid shoulders to a shaking head.
As for dancing, Future Islands again showed themselves to be among the most passionate performers in indie rock.
Frontman Samuel T. Herring opened with an apology, saying the Baltimore-based band was jet-lagged after returning from Australia.
But the intensity was on full display — especially on “Cave,” which touches on the US political climate — as the sweat-dripped Herring repeatedly growled, leaped across the stage and pounded his chest.