At 10:00pm on Sunday evening, the final night of Manchester’s Parklife festival, the enormous mass of people gathered outside the main stage was getting fidgety. Frank Ocean had been due on stage at 9:30, and I’d been waiting at the barrier with Matt for three hours to ensure a good spot for the show. All around us people were whispering rumours about Ocean’s tardiness, some people defeated in the thought that this would be another of many cancellations, others indulging in gossip such as Frank Ocean being replaced by a body double. In our festival-weary state of mind, the thought of a cancellation lingered like the shelf of grey clouds that had been looming over our heads all weekend. Not only this, but our efforts to get to the very front of the audience had been in vain as a walkway stage had been set up in the middle of the audience that placed us further away from the action than anticipated.
All things considered, it was no wonder that when the stage lights went out and the deafening noise of ‘Pretty Sweet’ started pumping out the speakers, the audience went berserk. After a minute of insanity and baited breath, we could see a door open on stage left and a golf buggy wheeling out, flanked by security. Sat on the backseat was Frank Ocean, sheepishly peering out from beneath a hoodie; literally arms-length away from where we were stood. At this point we were at least 90% sure he wasn’t going to cancel.
After he bounded up onto the stage, the distinctive organ intro of ‘Solo’ burst into life. But Ocean missed his cue, and when he did start singing, his timing was completely off. He stopped the song, apologising to the audience and cued for the song to start again. A similar screw-up happened again and Ocean stopped the song. He complained about his earpiece having too much latency and switched with one of his band members who was sat around his stage platform. Again, the song started and Ocean got much further into it this time, but about halfway through he seemed to miss a cue and stopped the song. After a few more restarts and adjustments, he made it through the entire song.
Next up was Chanel. No screw-ups here, he played the whole song and it sounded great, Ocean’s voice sounded incredible and audience enthusiasm was building up once again after the shaky start. However, at the end the song came to an abrupt stop and, inexplicably, Ocean said “I like this one, I’m gonna play it for y’all again”. And, sure enough, he did. At this point, I was filled with a sinking sense of dread. Is this what a Frank Ocean live show is like? Does he exist simply to build his fans up then let them down? Is he going play it 15 times in a row like Travis Scott did with ‘Goosebumps’? Is Frank Ocean an arsehole?
the off-kilter delivery carried on throughout the set but somehow I began to appreciate it
This feeling stayed with me until ‘Good Guy’. At this point, his live band came up on stage and Ocean crouched down at a little keyboard. The performance was the first tender moment of the whole set, with his voice shining through over the humble, lo-fi electric piano chords. The song was extended and fleshed out more than the album version; the audience seemed transfixed. This, for me, was the turning point. From there on I saw what the he was doing. The mistakes, the off-kilter delivery and casual audience chatter all carried on throughout the set but somehow I began to appreciate it.
Ocean’s set contained some of his best tracks from Blonde, ‘Self Control’, ‘Nights’ with ‘Nikes’ as the closer. He played his three most recent singles ‘Chanel’, ‘Lens’ and – my personal favourite – ‘Biking’. Also present were a couple of tracks from Endless, an underappreciated project in Frank Ocean’s discography considering that it was overshadowed by the release of Blonde. The noticeable lack of Channel Orange tracks other than ‘Thinkin Bout You’ is one of the many aspects of this show I think will be polarising for many fans. While I’m personally a big fan of Frank Ocean’s more recent material over the Channel Orange-era, there is clearly a big portion of the fan base who would’ve expected a more well-rounded set and one with far fewer mistakes. While my experience of seeing Frank Ocean was massively positive, I can see how, for many people, there was a lot left to be desired.
Seeing Frank Ocean was a strange experience. His nonchalance made it seem as if we were watching him play a casual open mic set at a local venue, but blown up to a massive scale. A show with such high production value should never be so sporadic, and yet he made it so. He made the audience feel as though they were watching him as a human, not the lauded, god-like figure he’s been built up as in the music press in recent years. The unpretentiousness of this performance led me to the conclusion that Frank Ocean is not an arsehole. Much like Blonde, the live show was minimal, vulnerable and fractured.