Frank Ocean came this close to ghosting his fans, seemingly disappearing from the live circuit before ever performing any new music. The anticipatory ups and downs that preceded last summer’s Endless madness and Blonde reward really began in 2015: An FYF cancelation foreshadowed the false hopes that followed. A lot has changed since those days of uncertainty. Frank hustled Def Jam, dropped two versions (kinda), shared a song of the summer contender, and kicked off Blonded Radio. Ocean, by all measures, is here to stay.

Until he wasn’t.

The singer-songwriter pulled out of Hangout and Primavera in May, sparking half-serious jokes that he would turn his ongoing run of headlining festival dates into a series of no-shows. (In all fairness, such reactions say more about fan culture than about Frank’s reliability—earlier 2017 concerts were called off “due to production delays beyond his control.”) Ocean’s debut performance on June 9 in Denmark evoked a collective sigh of relief from the Frank fans among us, though worries lingered. It’s funny to think about how unsure this whole performing thing seemed just a few weeks ago.

Recent events indeed paint a more confident picture. Ocean has graced audiences at five consecutive events: NorthSide in Denmark, Lovebox in London, FYF in LA, Panorama in NYC, and WayHome in Ontario. Previous doubts have dissipated. Frank’s mysticism and spotty attendance record, willful or not, have resulted in the sort of pandemonium reserved for legacy acts on their last run. It’s a rare talent who can draw baited breath and prove, again and again, why they deserve it.

P&P traveled far and wide to witness three of the five festivals headlined by Frank. We gathered ‘round the proverbial fire to share our responses to the first time seeing him live.

Festival:

Alex Gardner: Lovebox in London, Friday July 14.

Adrienne Black: Panorama in New York, Friday July 28.

Alex Siber: FYF Fest in Los Angeles, Saturday July 22.

 

A post shared by Pigeons & Planes (@pigsandplans) on Jul 23, 2017 at 1:08am PDT

The moment you knew you were watching something special:

AG: Usually the time before a festival headliner comes on stage is a drag. You wonder if you have time to go pee, and if it would then even be possible to get back to your spot. You check your watch, knowing damn well they won’t actually start on time anyway. This time, however, I was captivated by the stage before Frank even came out. There were unique looking chairs, Tom Sachs speakers, a goddamn disco ball on a retractable pole, and wait...is that Spike Jonze wandering around with a camera? Also, starting with a one-two punch of “Solo” and “Chanel” was almost too much for my little heart to take.

AB: Maybe only about ten minutes or so into Frank’s set, he started to perform “Solo.” As everyone around began to sing along loudly with him it felt like a group effort that was working to bond us all together. However, it wasn’t until I heard a few distinct sniffles near me and noticed one girl crying calmly to herself as she watched Frank that I truly knew how special that moment really was. They seemed like tears of both joy and disbelief that she was finally seeing Frank Ocean—making me take a second to appreciate everything that was happening around me in that moment.

AS: The Blonded merch tent was the storm before the storm. I arrived at FYF sometime in the afternoon on Saturday. My first stop was Frank Ocean's own merch tent, which was armed with screenpresses. (Most artists sold their clothing and accesories through the festival-run merch tent.) Buff security guards (keepers of the peace!) were telling people to step back from the line that had formed, and what a depressingly long line it was. It couldn't have been later than 4:30 p.m., seven hours before Frank's big moment, and the waiting area was already roped off, filled with hundreds of early birds. I snapped a few photos of the crowd before a big man in sunglasses politely told me to beat it. He didn't have to tell me twice. I didn't walk away with a shirt, but I did leave with a widening smile: It was clear that A LOT of Frank fans were in the building. Or maybe eager resellers won the day. I prefer the first interpretation.

The song that blew you away:

AG: Ah that’s a tough one. The yelling at the end of “Biking” is more heartfelt than some artist’s entire careers and “Nights” was powerful, but “Self Control” might have been the highlight. The rapped verse he uses as a live intro melts into the opening lines, but it was the the song’s final third, with the crowd was singing along, that gave me goosebumps.

AB: To be honest, I skip “Good Guy” every single time it comes on. It’s never been my favorite, but Frank’s live performance of it completely changed my opinion. Rather than the album’s more sped up version, Frank stretches the track out into something slower that creates a more intimate atmosphere—even as I stood squished between hundreds or thousands of admiring fans.

AS: “Close to You,” with or without Brad Pitt, was a jawdropper. Hearing that Stevie sample live hit me in the chest. I have to agree with Alex about "Self Control," too. He dives into an unreleased rap verse that leads into "poolside convos, about your summer last night," a real rallying point for the audience. The crowd seemed to go nuts for that, which was so cool. It's not a big hook, nor the first words of a #1 song. Just Frank doing what Frank does best. For the FYF crowd, it couldn't get any better than that.

frank-ocean-fyf-2017-blonded
Photo by Alex Siber at FYF 2017

What surprised you the most:

AG: When some guy near me was complaining that he “didn’t know this song” and “just wanted to hear ‘Thinkin Bout You’” while Frank was singing “Wither” from Endless. You’re seeing one of our generation's greatest artists, you’re one of the lucky few (thousand), can’t you just STFU for a second.

AB: Usually the jumbotron just feels like a courtesy to everyone too far in the back to truly see that silhouette singing on stage. But Frank’s screen felt like a movie, so much so that I found myself being distracted and focusing on it more than him at times. Witnessing him interact with the crowd in such a regular way felt surprising too. Frank can seem so distant sometimes, but that night he felt so welcoming and friendly, like anyone of us could approach him.

AS: When Brian Kinnes assembled, edited, and mastered dozens of fan footage clips to create an unofficial concert video, he gave Spike Jonze a run for his money. That was the first time—to my knowledge—someone crowdsourced a bunch of random YouTube videos to depict a set in its entirety.

As for the show itself, Jonze was a pleasant surprise. Brad Pitt did his thing. Hearing the “shoutout to A$AP” line during "Nikes" and then looking back to see Rocky beaming was a precious moment, but also a very “LA” moment. (I learned what an "LA moment" meant on this trip, I’m from Boston and we have no such thing there.)

I think the crowd surprised me most, and I honestly think they (we?) surprised Frank. Adrienne touched on this, too. Whenever Ocean deviated from what we're used to hearing on Blonde, ending a vocal run early, the crowd would carry that vocal forward. An undying singalong shifted to become a widespread echo. Every now and then, he'd look up and smile, as if in disbelief. He'd encourage the crowd with an "aye!" as he guided us through a refrain and thanked a fan who hollered kind words about his pants. He yelled "FUCK!" through grinning teeth after messing up "Good Guy," turning this huge event into a studio session. Frank says it best on "Futura Free": "I should be paying y'all, honest to God." 

How many people fainted:

AG: Before Frank even started I witnessed a couple of collapses and one girl in an absolute state being taken out of the crowd by her friends. You missed Frank, you absolute idiots. Indulge responsibly!

AB: At least six different people were passed all the way from the middle of the crowd towards the gate where I was standing. The heat and humidity on that Friday night was already a lot to deal with, adding body heat from a massive crowd of people only makes that worse every time. Drink more water guys, please!

AS: Three people fainted within a 20-foot radius of my position. If that small sample reflects the FYF Main Stage population, many dozens of others likely suffered a similar fate. Expect water delivery drones to take the festival scene by storm before decade’s end.

How many times you cried:

AG: Once, during “Nikes,” as the lyrics were shown on the video screens, karaoke style. 

AB: I wish I could say I cried, but I didn’t. For a good portion of the time, I stood a bit shocked. Seeing Frank Ocean, a man who can seem like a ghost at times, directly in front of you can be jarring. Hearing “Pink + White” deserved some tears but I’m not sure I’ve ever grinned harder in my life.

AS: I’ve told everyone who’s asked that I cried twice. I have regretfully been spreading false information. My eyes were watery for a good portion of that evening, but I only cried once, during “Good Guy." Frank dedicated a sizable chunk of his set to a song that barely inches past the one-minute mark, a subtle gem so often overlooked when sandwiched between the likes of "Self Control" and "Nights," which I imagine is what a short person might feel like when standing between a pair of six-footers during a basketball match. But Frank spotlighted it anyway, and he was right to. Hunched over a keyboard, the FYF Main Stage never felt smaller. "And to you it's just a late night out" stung. This felt like Ocean at his lowest point, a private gay bar scene he allowed us to witness.

What could have been better:

AG: It seems crazy to nitpick such a brilliant show but here we go. Frank does a wonderful job of making a giant festival show feel as intimate as possible, but I can’t help but think that a tour where the performance spaces are chosen specifically for his show and the crowd is composed purely of fans who have chosen to see only him would be even more magical. Also...you’re going to do “Pyramids” and “Forrest Gump” at WayHome festival in Canada but not in London. Damnit.

AB: There’s nothing Frank could have done better, but I could have picked a better spot to stand. Because his stage setup comes out a bit further into the crowd than the regular acts, most of my experience was spent watching his back or the screen.

AS: Brad Pitt and Frank Ocean did not hug it out. I wish they hugged it out. It’s worth emphasizing Adrienne’s point, too: If you’re a huge, huge fan, do everything in your power to reach the general admission guardrails early. It would have been awesome if attendees voted on an encore song, and it would have been special to see Tyler, the Creator and Frank join forces in California, but we can’t have it all! As for the gorgeous jumbotron footage.... Will a Spike Jonze-directed Frank Ocean concert film hit the internet one day? Fingers crossed.

Why someone should shell out cash to see Frank:

AG: Frank is a mystery and an enigma. Are you sure he’ll ever tour, let alone perform live again? Can you be sure that he’ll release another album? If the opportunity to see Frank presents itself, it’s an opportunity you take, even if you have to travel many miles. For Frank Ocean obsessives, seeing him live is like a pilgrimage, and it’s always going to be a special moment. But even if you’re not a die-hard, the care that Frank Ocean puts into his live shows— from song selection to visuals to stage set up to his band—is meticulous, and I can’t imagine any open-minded music lover would be anything other than mesmerized.

AB: It’s a rare experience, first of all. Unfortunately a Frank Ocean tour doesn’t seem to be coming in the near future. Many of these festival prices can be a serious hit to your bank account, but you have to decide if you’re willing to live with being broke for a little bit or regret not seeing Frank live forever.

AS: Look, I can’t claim to know the status of your personal funds. I suggest consulting with your inner accountant and, if needed, a legal guardian before handing over your wallet to the promoter powers that be. I just looked up the cost of a Netflix subscription and can confirm that a day pass to FYF was roughly comparable to a year of anytime access to Stranger Things.

BUT. But. I think the underlying case to be made in favor of this investment is not too far off from the argument against: Frank Ocean isn't Netflix. His music might be on-demand, but the man himself is anything but. A chance to see this guy live is not a given. Ocean might embark on tours for the rest of his days. And maybe the scramble to see him is a side effect of the belief that he's liable to disappear (re: be a regular person). Maybe that belief, translating to ticket sales, is the result of a longterm strategy. Regardless of any of that, the decision becomes more simple when you consider this: Frank Ocean has never been this good. If you like channel ORANGE or nostalgia ULTRA better than Endless or Blonde, I'll rephrase: He's never been this good live.  

I flew to Portland, Oregon a few days after FYF winded down and found myself at a record store. While there, I saw something new: channel LIVE, a bootleg vinyl pressing of songs Frank Ocean performed during his 2012 channel ORANGE tour.* It was curious hearing Ocean's 2012 tour voice after seeing him live in 2017. In short, Frank sounds exponentially more confident now, whether he's belting notes, embodying catharsis on "Biking," or quieting tens of thousands of people to deliver that stunning version of "Good Guy" we blabbered on about. One of the great artists of our time is in his prime. Do yourself a favor and don't miss it. 

*(I owe Frank and co. some money for this because there is no way in hell it's legal.)