Quick: if you were the 2014 Bonnaroo festival organizers, what would you book at the same time as the Skrillex Superjam, a three- hour extravaganza featuring every genre, artist and musical texture you could possibly imagine? If your answer was an act that was the polar opposite, you might pick Frank Ocean, who graced The Other Tent at roughly 12:30 am on Saturday night (June 14) and delivered one of the festival’s most calming sets.
The R&B singer said very little to the crowd as he took the stage wearing a simple pink hoodie, easing into “Thinkin Bout You,” “Lost” and then the "Nostalgia/Ultra" favorite “Novacane.” The stage setup was as stripped-down as the music -- Ocean was alone, no drummer or guitar player, and opted to cover the set’s backdrop with metallic gold streamers. The music, presumably coming from a DJ booth somewhere, was a different mix from what users would have heard on any of his albums. It was a raw, minimal version of what listeners heard on "Channel Orange."
Frank Ocean has yet to drop much new music since "Channel Orange" was released two years ago, but he has shown up as a featured artist on a few tracks. He opted not to play these tracks outright on Saturday night, and instead used them as transition songs: his verse from Kanye West’s “New Slaves” was used to transition out of “Novacane,” and the instrumental from Beyonce’s “Superpower” was used as the outro to “Crack Rock.”
Frank Ocean has stunning power over the crowd with just his presence. His onstage demeanor matches how soft-spoken he is during interviews, and at times, it was hard to even hear him sing, because the crowd knew every word to every single one of his songs. In fact, during portions of “Forrest Gump” and “Sweet Life,” he wasn’t even singing, and was instead standing on stage while the music played and the crowd filled in the rest.
“The night goes on -- who is staying out til the sun goes up?” Ocean asked right after playing crowd favorite “Pyramids.” He topped the set with a rare gem, a soft piano line playing as he sang “Wiseman,” a song he originally released just by posting its lyrics to his Tumblr page.
Frank Ocean's live show is so mellow that it’s easy for an eager festival crowd to drown him out with chanting and singing, but that relaxed tone was exactly what was missing from the Bonnaroo lineup, especially on a Saturday filled with amped-up sets from Zedd, Chromeo, Jack White and Cut Copy. With EDM blaring from nearly every tent late into the night hours (and even washing over parts of his quieter tunes), Frank Ocean’s 2014 Bonnaroo set proved to be a much-needed respite from the madness in Manchester.