Live Review, 7/16/12: Frank Ocean Meets a Sea of Support at the Regency Ballroom
July 16, 2012
Better than: Streaming Channel Orange
Last night, it felt like the most natural move in the world to hear Frank Ocean sing, "You run my mind, boy . . . Running on my mind, boy."
It was in a new song called "Forrest Gump," part of a sonic concept that could be cheesy in the wrong hands, but here evoked the unselfconsciously positive, feelgood vibe of the film. Only there was a rather brilliant twist that Tom Hanks never saw coming.
On the cusp of Independence Day, 24-year-old Ocean became one of the bravest artists in the music world when he took to his Tumblr to post what amounted to a public admission that he is bisexual, and that his first unrequited love was for a man.
"I don't know what happens now," he wrote, "and that's alrite. I don't have any secrets I need kept anymore. . . I feel like a free man."
The digital version of Ocean's official debut album Channel Orange also just came out last week, but between the big pockets of the sold-out audience who already knew every word of the new songs and Ocean's unflappable poise, it already felt like a well-loved classic. If Ocean had any hesitations about coming out, the overwhelmingly positive critical and popular response is hopefully reassuring him that he was right to take such a beautiful and honest step.
Ocean thanked the crowd frequently, though much of what he mumbled in between songs was drowned in a sea of affirmations. It shouldn't have been much of a surprise considering that fans lined up around the block all afternoon to get a good view, but the whole show elicited some of the most warmhearted cheering we've had the good fortune to share with an audience.
He took that support and ran with it, offering what appeared to be a hugely relaxed and confident presence both with new songs like "Thinkin Bout You" and older ones like the drolly drugged-out "Novacane." He didn't stage dive, but he probably could have surfed the whole room on the tide of good will.
Whether his voice plumbed a low depth or soared into the rafters with falsetto notes, it was there for him -- as strong and unwavering as on his recordings.
The show had a fashionably late start -- he'd tweeted "airport blues" earlier in the day, adding to suggestions he might have had a delayed flight to SFO and a bit of a subsequent rush getting to San Francisco. But if Ocean was tense at all, it melted away once he was smiling and waving on stage.
And it was infectious. Tyler, The Creator, hanging up in the balcony, had the hugest, purest little kid smile in the house (and it was an all-ages show, so he had some competition). It was the unmistakeable look of brotherly pride, not the image of rape-fantasizing misogyny that is often coupled with talk about Odd Future.
Another Odd Future friend, Hodgy Beats, jumped on stage during "Super Rich Kids," the recording of which features the elusive Earl Sweatshirt. Hodgy just danced and clapped since the crowd was already amped and didn't really need a hype man.
Ocean's appeal has recently been widened by his personal admission, but he'd already done a remarkable job of attracting a diverse audience in terms of race, age, and musical preferences. With songs like "Strawberry Swing," a Coldplay cover, and "American Wedding," which uses strong elements of the Eagles' "Hotel California," his deep appreciation for rock was apparent.
"I got in a little trouble for this one," he joked of "American Wedding," which has drawn the Eagles' ire for swiping a lot of the band's music. Ocean blogged about Don Henley's apparent intimidation:
He (They) threatened to sue if I perform it again. I think that's fuckin awesome. I guess if I play it at Coachella it'll cost me a couple hundred racks. If I don't show up to court, it'll be a judgement against me & will probably show up on my credit report. Oh well. I try to buy my shit cash anyway. They also asked that I release a statement expressing my admiration for Mr. Henley, along with my assistance pulling it off the web as much as possible. Shit's weird. Ain't this guy rich as fuck? Why sue the new guy? I didn't make a dime off that song. I released it for free. If anything I'm paying homage.
The most emotional moment of the night was during the performance of "Bad Religion," a powerful metaphor for the one who got away.
"If it brings me to my knees, it's a bad religion," he sang. "This unrequited love, to me it's nothing but a one man cult, and cyanide in my styrofoam cup. I could never make him love me, never make him love me."
Despite those words, the feeling was therapeutic. It was as if the song was the perfect antidote to a poisonous love, and you could see the flush of life coming back to his cheeks.
Ocean sat at a piano for his encore, "I Miss You," a song he wrote for Beyoncé for her most recent album 4, and sent her comparatively lifeless version to the left. It was a soft, sweet, and unexpected end to a wonderfully self-assured performance from a man who has only just begun to find his true voice.
Abraham Espiritu Frank Ocean bests Beyoncé on "I Miss You."
Personal bias: I'm old enough to also be an avowed fan of Billy Ocean, but I do think Frank Ocean has the potential to have even more longevity as an artist and songwriter.
Random detail: Here's the set list.
By the way: Today is the official release date for the physical version of Channel Orange.