The Show: Frank Ocean and Bon Iver performed for FADER + vitaminwater's Uncapped series.
Where: Angel Orensanz Foundation, NYC, September 24
In A Few Words: Two artists. Two genres. One headband.
For the last few months, vitaminwater's Uncapped series has zig-zagged the country, performing experiments in the style of a chemistry class (or Real World taping), with hip-hop and indie audiences thrown together in a room and the doors shut.
What happens when you introduce these two supposedly different elements? Will they find common ground, or will buildings crumble and worlds cease to exist? Good questions, if a bit overstated. The people at Fader have combined acts that bridge the divide, finding commonality in unexpected places: the raw honesty of The-Dream and Zola Jesus; the burbling and bubbling of Future and Jhené Aiko. (Much safer choices than, say, Odd Future and Scissor Sisters on the same bill.) But, no matter. Last night, about half an hour after Frank Ocean performed, Bon Iver walked out on stage to see that almost half of the room had already emptied out. Cool.
Almost a year ago, cheers welcomed Frank as he stepped away from his computer's glow and into the spotlight of New York for the first time. He did two shows at the Bowery Ballroom, nervous nights in which he spent whole minutes pretending to play Guitar Hero with his back turned to the audience. Even when he faced forward, he hid his gaze, burying his chin in his neck. In the ten months since, he released his debut album and revealed his true self in the liner notes; he's played larger stages in front of bigger cameras. Last night, then, Frank seemed more at ease than once thought possible; he made his vocals dance, performing a séance on old records.
"That was a soft jazz version of 'Lovecrime' for everybody," he said, opening up the show. He put on a patois for "Swim Good," snapping his fingers just like his tongue to hush the band behind him. Lights the color of Formula 50 bathed him in purple, then red, then yellow, but he never got lost. His eyes scanned the room, connecting, a smile creeping up the right side of his face. Someone said that the crowd sucked, and they did, but maybe they were more reverent than disinterested. (They only sang along to his last two songs, "Novacane" and "Pyramids.") Either way, Frank stood completely in control, rearranging his set list on a whim, playing "Novacane" by request and "Crack Rock" because he felt like it.
"They say I've got ten minutes left," he said, "We should probably play 'Pyramids'." (Makes sense, considering the song is listed as 9:57 on iTunes.) He sat down at the front of the stage, a blue light coating him. Necks craned to see him, but he didn't move. The keys started in; then bass. As everyone waited for a perfect end to an almost-perfect set, Frank came in so far behind the beat that he was almost ahead, racing in the wrong direction. He had gotten too comfortable.
When Frank Ocean holds a microphone, he nuzzles his nose into his fingers; an Eskimo kiss of a performance. Conversely, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon—built like a refrigerator—attacks his two microphones and guitar pedals with shoulders forward, as if about to throw a shot put, hurtling his body toward the fore. And yet, he shares Ocean's gift for delicacy. With soft echo effects laid atop falsettoed vocal tracks like doilies and china, his songs don't really have words; they convey moods. The sound of hugs, his songs are pretty, but almost impossible to decipher. (A cursory search online for "Wash." lyrics returns with two very different responses: one site claims "give us the pride;" the other, "give us the mold.")
Telling Bon Iver's songs apart is much like hiking through the thick of a forest, with the constant reminder that "I think it's just up here." Vernon's hands, notably, exist as fists; he looks more spurned than needlessly aggressive, the fire behind his eyes dampened by an overwhelming sadness. The lights flashed as if in a Kim Carnes video, and he dropped to his knees, looking as if he was lighting his guitar on fire with two sticks during "Calgary." For "Woods," he circled his lyrics in on themselves, his voice filtered through the folds of an accordion. "Blood Bank" embraced its own silence. And there were times the softness was beefed up, the bass strong enough to make an orange bottle fall off an amp, helped along by a deep roster that included a baritone saxophone, Flugel horn, French horn, fiddle and the blares of a trombone.
Justin Vernon clutches his chest, or points his finger, unforgiving. It's a dramatic performance, a beautiful performance, though without real arc; a slow burn that makes your back ache. Ten songs in, he broke in to say, "Thanks for being here and, uh, congratulations I guess. You guys got up early to get here, right?" (Okay, maybe it's best he not talk, though it did end up as a charming little speech. He used the word "honored" often in the minute-long break.)
For an encore, Bon Iver strolled through "The Wolves," the romantic hymnal quasi-appropriate for the religious surroundings. Justin thanked the audience one more time, and then they all left. Fifty or so bros stuck around, singing the refrain "what might have been lost" over and over, ad nauseum, to the point of annoyance. They may not have connected with Frank Ocean's fans, but at least they found one another.
Cost: $ (Free) — Worth it, inherently.
Best Song: Frank Ocean's "Swim Good"
Worst Song: One of Bon Iver's but, try as I might, I couldn't tell them all apart.
Crowd Noise: "I need a cigarette." —Guy in a super-low-hanging tee shirtdress, after seeing Frank Ocean. His friend said, "That's all I needed to see."
Spotted: Paul Rosenberg, Melyssa Ford, every white girl publicist in the city, Chris Baio from Vampire Weekend, a thirty-something "from that CBS show," a guy holding up his iPhone to FaceTime his friend who wasn't there, Locke from LOST and Alexa Chung.
Additional Thoughts: I kept thinking that the synagogue space should be used for more concerts, but I couldn't think of anyone who would do such justice to its beauty. Like, are you going to have French Montana there? Come on.