The moment the Pixies started taking second-on-the-bill festival slots, a new headliner’s dilemma was born: how the hell to follow that? Frank Ocean’s solution is not to take to Way Out West’s Flamingo stage at all. Instead, arriving his regulation 25 minutes late, Ocean conducts a public rehearsal entirely on the ramp. Just him in headphones crooning the 23rd century church organ R&B of ‘Solo’ as if Auto-Tuned, beside a huge tape machine. The only nod to the fact that he’s headlining a festival is the mirrorball hoisted atop a huge mast but the camcorder footage and electronic controls set takes up the entirety of the empty main stage.
In keeping with his standing as a one-man soul Radiohead, it’s an artful conceit. Mimicking Kanye’s minimalist postmodernism, Frank Ocean’s concept is to bring his studio set-up onstage in an inventively lo-fi upturning of traditional rock’n’roll headlining practices of, y’know, banging out the hits on firework-spewing cranes decked out like Westeros dragons. His crowd interactions are written on sticky tape hidden around the sparse set or typed into a laptop and displayed on the screens. He plays a keyboard on the floor during ‘Good Guy’. A gaggle of musicians emerge and form a rehearsal circle around him; an extensive string section place themselves behind the tape machine to add subtle mood effects. He covers The Jackson Five’s ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ to keep himself amused. He even stops and restarts songs because he’d forgotten a lyric, the tape machine fucks up or his voice cracks in the cold. As though in honour of the early 2010s wave of low-key acts reaching festival headline status (The xx are one of Friday’s biggest draws), it’s an anti-show of a show, where costume changes, light-up wristbands, on-fire acrobats hanging from inflatable volcanoes and other such expensive shit is rendered a thing a of the past.
Yes, there are parts of this ninety minutes where you consider that we may be just days away from every one of us perishing in the Chinese nuclear hellfire and wonder if this is really the way you’d want to spend your last hours on Earth – rather than, say, hugging your loved ones or finishing off this season of Orange Is The New Black. But for the most part, Frank’s lustrous, golden voice provides plentiful magic. His sparse, amorphous soul and gospel throbs (‘Chanel’, ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘Pink + White’) and the odd bout of compulsive trip-hop (‘Biking’), add to his entrancing croon and his beats break enough gentle ground to tether you to his celestial sounds.
Frank’s Lovebox set was cut short as it ran over, and as tonight’s curfew approaches with a quarter of the setlist and fifteen minutes of stoppage time still to play, there are fears he might fall foul of the noise complaint officer’s stopwatch once again. But no, he finishes his show with ‘Nikes’, the lyrics karaokeing across the big screen with a Hello Kitty head as the bouncing ball. Finally Frank breaks the fourth wall, and what he finds is a crowd lost in his post-soul dreamworld. Frankly, it’s awesome.