Frank Ocean And Solange At Panorama, Randall’s Island, Friday, July 29th, 2017, Reviewed
With Governors Ball happening during the first weekend of June and Panorama during the last weekend of July for the second year, the two music festivals, both happening on Randall’s Island and both owned by major corporations, have become mirror images of each other. Second tier rock and pop stars who could fill a 20,000 seat arena but not a 70,000 seat stadium, filled in the middle with theatre size third tier and bottomed out by a throw a dart at a board cusp band and singers, they use identical formats in identical ways. You could switch the entire three day festival rosters and nobody would notice.
The three days of Panorama, which began on Friday and ends on Sunday, had themes at the top of the bill: Sunday is 90s art rock with Nine Inch Nails and A Tribe Called Quest, Saturday is Alt indie featuring alt-j and Tame Impala, and Friday, the day we made our pilgrimage, not simply the best of the three but an astounding syllogism of modern soul, Solange’s chill neo-r&b followed by Frank Ocean’s soul singer in a line from Marvin and Stevie through Luther Vandross (who never enjoyed the social climate where he could be true to his sexuality in public) and other 80s guys like Babyface and 90s guys like Maxwell, to Frank’s current post soul classicism reworkings, a sound he is working towards but hasn’t arrived at.
We arrived at Randall’s Island around four and after a scuffle with Panorama security wherein they wouldn’t allow Tomas to enter with an open packet of cigarettes, because, in 2017, they were worried he was smuggling in pot laced smokes, we let them steal around $7 worth of tobacco off Tomas we were in and immediately saw a pretty blonde girl puffing away, where (don’t read this bit Rachel) Tomas chatted her up and took a smoke off her! Off to the races, while Panorama claim to have four stages, all the action is on the big Panorama Main stage and its kid sister The Pavilion, we saw three sets at the Pavilion and three sets at the Main Stage. We started with the tail end of Mo, the Danish singer and songwriter, mostly voice on Major Lazer tracks, she looked great and sounded great, and we heard both “Cold Water” and “Lean On Me”. Next was the Austin, Texas alt rockers Spoon, Iman has never much liked the alt-rock baby Arcade Fire band: he once spent a week watching their set one night at Radio City; a couple of years later they were better at Governors Ball. Tomas liked them at first, admired the drummer Jim Eno, who can keep down the bottom very well, but wondered when Britt Daniel was going to turn it up to the next level. Britt didn’t ,so we crossed the park to catch MGMT, who Tomas liked a couple of songs from and were truly dreadful, the Kids duo were a palpable downer unable to spark themselves alive. Back across the park for Frank Ocean’s former Odd Future friend Tyler, The Creator, he had a colorful, high energy set based upon his fairly alright current album but Tomas complained about its lack of funkiness, of pocket, and while Iman was happy Tyler had put away his childish ick and poop and troublemaking, just doesn’t find the man exciting anymore.
But this is what it is all about. While we both loved both Solange and Frank’s current releases, A Seat At The Table and Blond, neither of us really listen to them anymore. The reason is that for all their myriad of gifts as music, as song they are not memorable. Indeed, they are very indicative of two artists who aren’t quite there yet, they needed to go back to song school, not for structure, constructure, contraction, but for how to get back to melody and to tunefulness; Frank covered both the Carpenters “Close To You” and the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” a paradigm of his skills as a singer and limitations as a songwriter. Iman doesn’t believe Solange is as great as her big sister Beyonce, who has been a part of the great soul songs of the past decade, from “Irreplaceable” to “Single Girls (Put A Ring On It)” to “Hold Up,” and for only one reason: Solange’s songs aren’t as good. Tomas believes Solange is a harbinger of neo-r&b, a chill vibe she encapsulates perfectly.
This would be the fourth time Iman has seen Frank Ocean on stage, but only the second time headlining, and while he was just about perfect, he was also not much further along as a live performer since 2012. Tomas appreciated that the offhand, a man in his lab, with his band, feeling his way through the set in a personal and private way worked very well this time, but not a trick Frank can pull off twice. Solange is part of a new black art school: she is so overarching in her new found New Orleans black lives matters schtick she’s been known to say things like ” “Being a black woman of color, I’m not settling for just being here…” Either woman of color is another way of saying black woman or woman of color refers to every woman in the world, including the Afghanistani woman we were talking to between sets. Collaborator Saadiq’s claim that Solange and he were mistaken for panhandlers in New Orleans sounds a little apocryphal. All of this puts doubts in Iman’s mind as to how sincerely up against the wall the curly haired somewhat gorgeous Solange truly is. Put it this way, if she is part of the 99%, what are Tomas and Iman part of? On stage in a storm of red lights with a full band and two backup singers, Solange was astounding. Using two horns as accents on the beats, the highly stylized hour long set never dragged, never stopped, always something to watch, including a storming 15 piece horn section that joined her for “F.U.B.U.” and a vocal tour de force coda with horns blazing and her voice a searing roar right on top. This was dance music for sure, but chill dance music, cool and hot. By the end, Solange was banging her fists on the ground and shaking her hair. If we have problems with the strength of some of her material, both “F.U.B.U.” and “Bad Girl” (a stupendous vocal on both) -indeed the entire last third, including her pre-Seat At The Table, “Losing You” -a song that needs nothing else but itself to be entirely outstanding, were superb. One complaint: she didn’t perform “Junie”.
Iman saw the first date of Kanye West’s Yeezus tour at Randall’s Island and Kanye got off the mainstage and performed at a smaller stage to the right. Iman didn’t mind because it happened to be right in front of where he was standing. Frank did the precise same thing, performing his entire set on a tiny, cozy even, side stage, with machines aplenty, and a set that started with Frank flipping sides of a cassette on the stage before singing “Solo”. He wore cans all the way through set, getting cues from his “imaginary friend” through his headphones between songs. The truth is, the LCD screens were terrific but if you wanted to actually see Frank without the short circuit TV, it wasn’t happening. That’s OK, there was an offhand sweetness to his performance, though Tomas warned not to be taken in by it: this was a highly rehearsed performance. Lying very heavily on Blond with only one song off Chanel Orange (“Thinkin’ About You”), everything improved on stage, every single song. Frank has an exquisite voice and he breathes music, he is entirely musical. Tomas notes the live band joining Frank on stage after he blows the intro (“We’re still learning….” Frank claims) is the difference between Kendrick and Frank. In a tee shirt bearing the legend “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you can just be quiet,” Ocean is a new-old soul man, he is part of a softer, somewhat more eccentric black man, a Marvin Gaye without the songs. He is, indeed, a part of the generation that gave us Barack Obama, a mainstream black artist: neither gangsta nor street (despite his Odd Future roots), but an everyman who is personified by the partial integration of the black man into the closed shop world of white liberalism. It sounds beautiful (“oooh yeah,” he throws in during “Lens” -a small but telling emphasis) and it has a very deep and very towering emotionalism. Songs that seemed just part of the firmament on Blond come to life. “Ivy,” which he introduced as a song for anyone who has ever broken up with someone, to the new lover of “Good Guy” to the image that seems so Ocean it might as well have his DNA on it “Poolside Convo” -so Malibu, so in the sun in a hot day during the West Coast summer as feelings reach forward. If only the songs were a little better.
The next album will tell the story for both artists, but for Friday night alone, this was the state of people of color black art school soul music. It was perfect even within its limitations, seeming to exist in an alternative world a million years away from the brutal DC of 2017, Solange and Frank Ocean are the faces of r&b today.