Matson on Music
Frank Ocean sticks to the music in Seattle tour kick-off
Video by Ambiguous Reason; more here
Photos by me
"Bad Religion" was the song of the evening at the Frank Ocean concert Friday night at Showbox at the Market, the highlight of an auspicious start to a tour promoting the Los Angeles-via-New Orleans R&B singer's new album "Channel Orange."
The sold-out house sang every word to the unrequited love ballad — an impressive feat, since the album is not fully out yet, released just a few days ago on the Internet and due in physical retail stores this Tuesday. Anticipating Ocean's pained falsetto toward the end, the crowd screamed when he nailed the note.
Ocean hardly spoke at all between songs. He barely registered that he knew he was in Seattle and never once mentioned the considerable media attention surrounding the blog post he wrote last week on frankocean.tumblr.com about loving another man (who never loved him back) when Ocean was 19. Even if it shouldn't, that detail changes everything for the singer — especially the meaning of the "Bad Religion" lyric, "I could never make him love me." Rather than address it literally, Ocean let his blog post function as a literary device, giving subtext to his story-songs.
Musically, the show was perfect. Ocean was a little physically awkward — elbows pinned to his body as if concealing armpit sweat — but sang precisely and with great emotion, perhaps trying to make sure everything was music-focused.
But the thought on the blog post loomed again in the concert-opening cover of Prince's "When You Were Mine," which came out in 1980, before 24-year-old Ocean was born, with Prince's lyric, "He was there / sleeping in between the two of us."
That was the way of the whole concert — never blunt, but rather swirling and indistinct, raising questions. In his song "Pyramids," is the pyramid a prostitution scheme? Is slavery involved? Moving between genres, he sang between notes and moved through chords by half-steps, all the while offering something conceptual to mull over.
Who could blame him for not wanting to elaborate on his personal life, after getting boxed-in by headlines like the Chicago Sun-Times' "R&B Star Frank Ocean makes media waves with admission he's gay"? Ocean never used "gay" or any label in his blog post. And since he's such a writerly artist, it's unlikely that was an accident.
But the main story still was the unspoken one: Ocean's Internet sharing about his love life changing his music and the staunchly heteronormative genre of modern R&B.
Of local interest: The show's music director was the producer Malay, from Bellingham, Wash., who wrote virtually all of "Channel Orange" with Ocean; the piano player was Seattle/Tacoma's Buddy Ross.