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Review: Frank Ocean Transmits Intimacy on a Grand Scale

He sang beautifully and also nonchalantly — as shows of this size go, the performance was astonishingly quiet. He stuck largely to his recent albums, in arrangements that at times felt gestural. “Solo,” which began the set, was firm and urgent, and “Nikes,” which ended it, was seductively sleepy-eyed. In between, he made room for indignation (the “Poolside Convo” intro to “Self Control”), plangent nostalgia (“Nights”) and asking the crowd to access “the mental energy to go back to that awful painful place like I have to when I’m up here,” before singing the sweetly anguished “Ivy.”

Though he occasionally sauntered back to the main stage, he mostly sang on a circular platform, maybe 15 feet in diameter and about 50 feet into the crowd, where he was surrounded by musical equipment and a handful of beautifully designed chairs. These sometimes held members of his band, who picked at their instruments the way laconic teenagers pick at vegetables, just enough to make it clear they’re paying attention.

Mr. Ocean moved constantly, but rarely in relation to the crowd — everything had the air of improvisation, the do-it-yourself feel of a warehouse show or an experimental-music room.

Arena shows of late have become fully three-dimensional, using the sky above the crowd as a secondary stage, turning concerts into theaters of suffocation — there is nowhere to turn where there is not some action.


At the Panorama Music Festival, Mr. Ocean performed songs from a pair of albums released last year, which broke a four-year silence.

This is a dynamic that Mr. Ocean more or less demolished. Certainly, headlining an outdoor festival is different — you cannot beat the sky — but the urge to overwhelm typically remains. Mr. Ocean’s reticence was more than a statement about excess; it proved you can translate intimacy on a giant scale.

The platform held a tiny hive of inward-looking activity. Mr. Ocean spent the night being stalked and shadowed by two cameramen (one was the director Spike Jonze) in a sort of audiovisual capoeira — mostly they revolved around the perimeter, but sometimes they pushed in on Mr. Ocean almost uncomfortably, and sometimes he bounded toward one of the cameras and it retreated. By the end of the show, both cameramen’s shirts were moist with sweat. There was another camera on a pole near the center of the stage, rising and falling and rotating 360 degrees, constantly in search of an angle.

The huge screens behind Mr. Ocean displayed the footage: arrestingly close up, smartphone-casual, made by hand. It had the feel of a livestream on Instagram. Sometimes the band members were offstage, sitting on the floor and leaning up against it, and the cameras would find them laughing and goofing off. A couple of times, one of Mr. Ocean’s associates typed out italicized encouragements on a laptop screen, and a camera broadcast it to the crowd. Hovering above the platform was a disco ball that, when bathed in light, was the show’s only nod to glitz.

There were hiccups — a busted music stand, and a couple of songs that had to be restarted because of missed cues — though they were handled with calm. Maybe this was a work in progress, but it was also — like the visual album “Endless,” which depicted Mr. Ocean building a staircase — a reminder that progress is work, and that work is progress. Even his approach to merchandise reflects this interest in process — a screen-printing operation was set up on site, where shirts were made to order, attracting a line so long it had to be cut off hours before Mr. Ocean set foot onstage.

Since last summer, Mr. Ocean has been canceling festival performances, citing production issues, but it hasn’t been certain whether reluctance was the real culprit. What this performance made clear was that it takes a lot of planning and choreography to do something this small and casual. Process is now his product. It suits Mr. Ocean’s sui generis approach to celebrity, which is reclusive but also dependent on that isolation for its subject matter and tone.

Throughout the concert, Mr. Ocean wore a pair of Vic Firth isolation headphones, which bulged out from his head a couple of inches on either side. Like everything else about this show, it was a semiotic tug-of-war: He was absorbed in the music he was making, but he was also ignoring you.

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