All words: Alan Pyke — All photos: @moraculous
If Monday night at the 9:30 Club was any indication, Frank Ocean is unlikely to be playing such tight venues on his next tour. Given that his whole tour sold out before his debut album even came out, and that D.C. probably isn’t any more of a hotbed of Oceanism than any other city, it’s a safe bet. Kid’s been on his way to stardom for about two years now, but the “on his way” part of the trip is just about over. Monday’s crowd ate out of his hand for the duration of his 70-minute set, and might’ve bitten off the hand itself if he’d gotten too close.
Before the show, nobody seemed to agree about what he was likely to play. He’s got two hours of material between last year’s nostalgia, ULTRA tape and this month’s Channel Orange LP, and probably a third hour of other stuff. There wasn’t much consensus about what he’d drawn on most heavily.
As though to point out what a dumb argument that was, Frank came out and laid straight into….a Sade tune? Hell yeah he did. “By Your Side” is mostly in a lower register than the crooning that’s made the man famous, but he did right by it. At least, the parts you could make out of the shrieks and squeals. From there it was “Summer Remains,” an orphaned track from this spring, but a damned pretty one. Then “Thinkin Bout You,” and the first full-fledged singalong of the night.
Now I was on record beforehand saying that it’d be dumb to sing along at a Frank Ocean show, given the beauty of his own voice and its centrality to his appeal. That was a dumb thing for me to say. His voice cut through the not-completely-tuneless noise of the crowd’s singing, and the energy in the room was gripping, manic stuff. I’ve never been to a D’Angelo show or seen Justin Timberlake, but the crowd on Monday was the closest thing I’ve seen to the famous freakouts of the British Invasion.
It was in the third verse of TBY that Ocean first stood up (cue spike in screaming) and started to roam the stage. He’s not a very animated performer, but doesn’t need to be. The littlest grin (more screaming) or wave (lots more screaming) or wink (AHHHHHHHH!!!!) pays off as much as the struttiest antics of other acts. And again it is 100 percent about that voice. I promise I won’t try to describe it. You have ears and adjectives and an internet connection, you figure it out. All I can tell you is that he replicates the delicate inflections of his falsetto and the warmth of his lower register in person just the way you’ve heard it in your headphones. And if you think his voice is carrying profound emotion on the record, it’ll just about knock you on your ass live.
He whipped out “Novacane” fourth, and if he’s gotten tired of singing his breakout solo hit it didn’t show. Then it was Channel Orange standouts “Sweet Life” and “Forrest Gump.” The latter is one of the new tracks that led a reporter to ask Ocean about making sexy songs with male pronouns about a month ago. There’s no point in trying to reverse engineer some handy label for Frank’s sexuality based on his lyrics, and he carefully and gracefully avoided putting himself into any boxes in the note to fans that revealed that his first love was a man. If you get hung up on who “Forrest Gump” is about or what “Bad Religion” really means about Frank’s brain or dick, you’re missing a hell of a jungle by obsessing over some pretty dumb trees.
Nobody in this crowd seemed to be making that mistake. The singalong that started with “Thinkin Bout You” kept on through “Forrest Gump” and reached another plane of participatory fandom on “Crack Rock.” Everybody knew every word and every gasp of this tune. Frank even turned it over to the crowd for a couple stretches, coming back in at his leisure. He certainly looked grateful, but never surprised. He took a break and changed shirts while his band played “White,” and proved up to the task even without John Mayer in the house. It was a simple trio behind him, drums and bass and guitar, but they replicated the tracks just as faithfully as their frontman, and deserve props.
After his little shirt change break, Frank kept the pedal all the way down for the back half of the show. “Swim Good” got the buck-nutty reaction it deserves, and “Lost” had him making eye contact with the front row (see above parentheticals re: screaming), then a soft-spoken “This song is special to me” before “Bad Religion.”
He closed out his main set with “Pyramids,” which slipped the crowd out of sing-along gear and into full twerk mode, before sitting down to a keyboard to play “I Miss You,” the song he wrote for Beyoncé. Not many singers can close out their set with a song they wrote for the reigning queen of pop. Probably just the one, in fact. And if you’re missing him on this tour, you’re missing that last stage of liftoff, where any doubts you had that the rocket would get off on the ground are erased in a final rush of combustion.