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LIVE REPORT: Frank Ocean
Milton Savage , July 11th, 2013 11:09

Milton Savage witnesses a triumphant set from Ocean at Brixton Academy, and wonders where contemporary R&B can go following channel ORANGE

Frank Ocean is untouchable. No interviews. No after-party – here, at least. The kids in the room – and by kids we mean 'kids', those in their late-teens and early 20s, who comprise the visible majority of attendees, and shriek their support for the singer at every opportunity – are just specks of dust on the wind to this artist.

Ostensibly he's a component of the volatile Odd Future collective. That's what the CV says, anyway. But this is culture over chaos. When Ocean's on stage – tonight, dressed in white sheets, so that blue, red and pink lights flood across it like wine stains on a wedding dress – the atmosphere is, however shrill the sing-along, more dinner at the Savoy than the travelling-fair bumper cars vibe of a typical Tyler-fronted Odd Future performance.

This is measured, mannered and magnificently designed. Ocean's backing band – archaic synths and a two-part brass section one side; guitar and drums the other; between them, a huge screen showing the slow and steady progress of that "dream car" from the nostalgia, ULTRA set across salt flats – is superbly suited, the embodiment of timeless fashion. Ocean himself is more casual. But he could be dressed in scratchy sackcloth and that voice would still, effortlessly, carry across the ages.

This is what has made the man untouchable. Ocean makes this look easy. Hell, he even sits down for a two-song spell, delivering 'Forrest Gump' at a level that leaves those in the circle with a view of his scalp only. Assuming they're lucky enough to escape the attention of over-zealous security types, who won't tolerate any standing on chairs.

Expectedly, Ocean's lilting and luxurious tones weave their way around much of 2012's outstanding channel ORANGE LP, his debut studio set and, truthfully, the reason many are here. While numbers from nostalgia are met warmly – the second song of the set is 'Novacane' – it's for cuts like 'Super Rich Kids' and 'Thinking Bout You' that the sold-out room goes up.

During the former, Ocean stumbles for a second, losing his place in the song. He encourages the evidently keen audience to help him out. It doesn't quite work. "Y'all are singing the wrong lyrics," he laughs, quickly catching up with where the band is. It's a chink in the armour, where the big-hearted man behind these glorious songs is most visible.

But at other times, as great as these arrangements are, there is a detachment – this is 'big show' stuff, and as a result one loses that whites-of-the-eyes connection with the performer, especially from the back of the circle, where the sound muddies and the view is nearly permanently obscured by gyrating bodies. What a thrill it must have been to see Ocean in intimate surroundings. Equally, though, he doesn't belong at Brixton Academy – he deserves a bigger room with a cleaner sound, a venue to have his voice reach the heights he's clearly capable of.

The second half of the show features a run of such quality that it makes you wonder what contemporary R&B can do in the next couple of years to match the impression made by channel ORANGE. (And Ocean's own second album, apparently scheduled for a 2013 release, has much to live up to.) 'Bad Religion' precedes 'Crack Rock', and the astounding 'Pyramids', Ocean's metaphors-spilling opus-to-date which spreads its multiple phases across a never-dull ten minutes, bleeds out into 'Sweet Life'.

There are new songs. 'Feel California' opens, and is drowned, near enough, by the reception afforded the singer. As such, it doesn't wholly register. 'Brave' arrives soon afterwards, a nakedly raw piece with a sparse accompaniment. If it's indicative of what's to come on Ocean's second studio album, then said set is more likely to explore intimate emotions than the spiralling fantasies of a cut like 'Pyramids'.

Perhaps it's because of songs like 'Brave' that Ocean doesn't feel any need to speak to the press. He's putting it out there as it is. Explaining these songs… what good could it do? While subject matters aren't always black and white, the feelings that resonate through his material are absolutely universal. Son, daughter, mother, father, grandparent: you do feel, at this point, that Ocean can write a song for any demographic.

They won't all hop onto the soft furnishings. But inside, everyone will be dancing.

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