Frank Ocean fails to catch fire in Vancouver
At the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday, July 14
All the pretty boys and girls in the city wanted to party with Frank Ocean Saturday at the Commodore, all of them but Ocean himself. Because it was the weekend, because it’s summer, and because the 24-year-old headliner is the current news cycle’s hottest breakout pop star, this show had all the makings of a classic. But for all his strengths as a songwriter and singer, Ocean is either too inexperienced, too moody, or too introverted to deliver anything approaching a transcendent live experience.
The singer’s plain attire jeans, T-shirt, headband—hinted at his approach to the night’s events, his four-piece band a similarly understated bunch which skilfully re-created the bleary atmospheres found on his just-released debut, channel ORANGE. Like Drake’s Take Care, Ocean’s record recasts R&B as music for the head first, and the body later, tapping into a lineage of freaky black bohemianism that stretches from Stevie Wonder to Prince to D’Angelo. It’s an approach that makes for a fascinating album, but a mostly dull concert experience.
Because he’s built them from the ground up, Ocean can rip apart his songs and reconfigure them on-the-fly, as on his rendition of “Thinkin Bout You”, channel ORANGE’s sultry mood-setting opener. The singer altered the song only slightly, but to devastating effect, delaying a single falsetto note in the chorus to induce involuntary squeals of delight, the kind of orgasmic shiver that only the finest soulmen can conjure.
Judging by their lusty response last Saturday, the passion of Ocean’s female admirers seems only to have intensified with his recent coming-out as bisexual. When he crooned about falling in love with women (on “Novacane” and “Pilot Jones”), a girl could imagine he was singing to her alone. And when he turned his attention to his own guy problems (see “Bad Religion” or “Forrest Gump”), he was commiserating with any woman who’s ever been in love with a schmuck.
Despite the ladies’ best intentions, the room temperature stayed well below boiling for most of the evening, the throwback Fender Rhodes and funk guitar accents of songs like “Sweet Life” suggesting Ocean might better be suited to the soft-seat theatre circuit. The energy hit its lowest point with the singer’s shaky cover of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing”, which the New Orleans native rendered in a smeared synthetic style that recalled Toto’s ’80s-era AM-radio staple, “Africa”.
Near the set’s end, Ocean told the audience, “It’s been a wild week for me,” the closest he came to discussing the publicity storm his coming-out has entailed. If he was a cannier businessman, or a born celebrity, the singer might have addressed his sexuality head-on, and he surely would have been showered with adulation in this friendly setting. Instead, he put his head down and went back to work, unfurling “Pyramids”, a sprawling 10-minute discothèque epic about a stripper in which his inwardness finds glorious outward expression, providing nourishment to both the mind and body of anyone in earshot.
Somewhere around the song’s five-minute mark, as he closed his eyes and repeated the song’s central mantra (“She’s working at the Pyramid tonight”), Ocean became a full-fledged star, commanding the room with his eyes closed. If he can learn to sustain moments like those, there’s no telling how many boys and girls will fall in love with him.