Frank Ocean walked onstage at Pier 36 in Manhattan early this morning, without any fanfare beyond audience screams of recognition, and went about his business of reshaping R&B.
One of the year's breakout stars, Ocean may still be best known by many for his revelation in July that he had been in love with a man. But that designation is changing with the release of his excellent “Channel Orange” album and a string of high-profile impressive performances, on MTV's Video Music Awards, “Saturday Night Live” and now headlining the first day of All Tomorrow's Parties first festival in New York, I'll Be Your Mirror.
Ocean, who the festival landed through this year's curator and Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli, showed off his stunning vocal skills early on with “Thinkin' Bout You,” going from his lowest register to falsetto effortlessly. Songs that quiet and personal don't always work in a festival atmosphere, but Ocean's controlled passion had the crowd hanging on his words.
He quickly moved to some of “Channel Orange”'s more up-tempo, if not necessarily upbeat, songs — the crafty “Forrest Gump,” “Sierra Leone” and “Crack Rock” — to prove that danceable R&B doesn't have to be dumbed-down.
Onstage, Ocean said he threw out his planned setlist. Sensing that he had the crowd's full support, he was able to show how he plans to stretch R&B's boundaries, showing an indie-rock vibe on “Strawberry Swing” and adding some rough guitars to the sleek soul of “Novacane.” He closed with the ambitious 10-minute-plus R&B suite “Pyramids,” tracing the role of women from Cleopatra to modern-day strip clubs, giving up the beat only to showcase a Prince-like guitar solo.
Ocean's no-nonsense approach fit in well with I'll Be Your Mirror's other opening-night acts, from Philip Glass and Tyondai Braxton's minimalist soundscapes to Janeane Garofalo's rapid-fire stand-up comedy. Garofalo, who said she had trouble finding the Pier 36 complex on the East River until she spotted a pack of hipsters, riffed on everything from becoming sober to the racial composition of zombies in “The Walking Dead” to questionable marketing. “[Saying] 'mancave' and 'bucket list' to me is like a punch in the face,” she said, though the punishing hard-core of Lightning Bolt that began shortly after on the main stage was far more aggressive.
It was another sign of how I'll Be Your Mirror was designed to run the gamut of today's culture.
SETLIST: Summer Remains / Thinkin' Bout You / Forrest Gump / Sierra Leone / Crack Rock / Swim Good / Strawberry Swing/Made in America / Lovecrimes / Novacane / Pyramids