July 31, Kool Haus - Toronto
Machismo and spectacle might be the order of the day for many of his contemporaries, but Frank Ocean instead brought a quiet dignity to the stage at the Kool Haus in Toronto, one of the last North American stops on his Channel Orange tour (he’ll soon take off for several festival dates, as well as an opening gig for Coldplay over in Europe).
If some of his output on record has garnered comparisons to revered Motown legends like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Frank Ocean’s stage show evokes a more recent lineage, namely one that includes neo soul stars Maxwell and D’Angelo (in his more restrained form). Ocean’s live set values vocal prowess over theatrics, with a premium placed on emotional connection, not surprising given the nature of his records. In fact, in the context of his show, his lyrics from “Novacane” ("every single record autotunin’ / Zero emotion, muted emotion / pitch corrected, computed emotion") felt more like a critique of the modern music landscape than a consequence of love-struck numbness.
Showing no signs of a possible bout with the flu, Ocean’s voice was in fine form as he garnished his tracks with slightly new vocal flourishes and sent the fervent crowd into a frenzy every time he slipped into his falsetto (“Thinkin Bout You” being an obvious favourite in this regard).
Channel Orange was given its due, with album cuts like “Crack Rock,” “Super Rich Kids” (brought to life with springy keyboard stabs) and “Sweet Life” (where Frank really showed off his vocal chops) all getting strong renditions, but perhaps most stirring of all was the terrific reinterpretation of Nostalgia, Ultra. highlight “American Wedding,” full in its emotional weightiness and capped off by an electrifying guitar solo (but not the one from “Hotel California”). If anything, Frank’s 4-piece band could have used more moments like that to add their touches to his recordings.
And for as good a song as it is, the first half of the 10-minute epic “Pyramids” couldn’t help but come off a little strange, with the funky bass—ratcheted up 10 notches—producing a sea of fist pumping on a night characterized more by swooning sing-alongs. Far from a complete misstep, it was a moment that pointed to the kinks* that must be worked out before Ocean’s live set can fully reach the standard of excellence set by his recorded work.
*When it comes to fan interaction, there’s an art to nonchalance that Frank hasn’t quite mastered yet. At times his dialogue to the crowd fell on the forgettable side of humbleness. Fortunately the brisk transitions between songs made up for it.