Live: Frank Ocean at Bowery Ballroom

Photographer Jason Nocito
November 29, 2011

It has been some time since standard issue wardrobe for a performer was a suit. Onstage, fashion has expanded outward from the center, touching equally on costume garb and casual gear. The suit was an equalizer; Otis Redding doesn’t have that much to do with the Beatles, who don’t have that much to do with Frank Sinatra, but they all looked similarly classy, and that wasn’t a bad place to start as the bottom line for showmanship. Frank Ocean, perhaps trying to neutralize some of his newness, donned one for his performance at Bowery Ballroom last night, the second of a two-night, sold-out run. He didn’t have a tie, though. He did have a headband. He looked great, well tailored and handsome. He has perfect teeth and an incredible smile, his handsome persona more a vessel for his voice than a reason to listen. Midway through the show, he removed his jacket to great fanfare.

Actually, pretty much everything Ocean did was to great fanfare. He’s famous, or at least he will be soon, which, to a devoted audience, is basically the same thing. Ocean showed up onstage alone and stayed that way, singing songs from his debut (and only release), Nostalgia/Ultra. He has performed less than ten times, and between songs, when he talked, he seemed nervous. When he sang, he did not. It’s that same smooth confidence that made Nostalgia popular. To boost it, everyone in the audience sang along, some put their hands up and held them there, rapt, and a few people just made out. No one was having a bad time.

This summer, Ocean released a demo of a song he’d written for someone else on his Tumblr. Then he quickly took it down. But it was too late, the song “Thinking About You,” otherwise known as “Thinking About Forever” by Bridget Kelly, arguably became his most popular, and potentially best, song. Kelly’s version is essentially a full-fledged follow through of Ocean’s, the backing boosted and her vocal performance better recorded and mastered—just all around bigger. But Ocean’s tossed-off version is just better. It isn’t trying, even if he is. Ocean, of his own admittance, is a heavy perfectionist, and his hard work shows. (This isn’t a dig.) Live, “Thinking About You” sounded sweet and light, as though, as hard as he might try, the song could never be laborious. Ocean’s songs, as perfect as many may be, with their many samples and in-jokes, often feel like projects as much as they do songs. Further to that point: Ocean sang in front of a screen projecting mostly scenes of movies; one song was accompanied by a montage of people jumping from buildings (was that The Hudsucker Proxy?!), another was a series of clips of Clint Eastwood. He ended his set with the world ending, as seen from outer space.

Maybe it was the apocalypse, but for all the wild hooting during the show, there was general audience confusion as to the encore, and, after jags of applause, Ocean finally returned to the stage to play one last song, alone on his piano, a reworked version of “Miss You,” which he wrote for Beyoncé and which appears on her most recent album, 4. The instrumental for her version is not dissimilar to “Thinking About You,” with large synthesizer sweeps and a rugged drum machine, a motif that works well to highlight Ocean’s understated vocal dynamics. Bridget Kelly, he can handle, but Beyoncé is another beast, so, solo, Ocean (who warned of his newness to piano) reworked the track entirely, playing and singing gingerly, restrained yet perfectly from his diaphragm; an Olympic judge would've surely applauded his technique and form. He probably knows that already. Like most things, that's a blessing and a curse. Two weeks ago, at the last minute, Ocean cancelled his originally scheduled New York show because he was sick. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, as he insists, he was too sick to perform. Really, though, at the 11th hour, he could have played through the pain so as to not drive crazy the audience who had more than likely already left their houses to see him. But maybe it was something else, maybe he was tweaking and tuning, finally deciding his performance was not quite ready. To Ocean, that decision, however inconvenient, trumps. If so, it was worth the wait.

Live: Frank Ocean at Bowery Ballroom