In the internet era, music is less grounded in specific experiences: you can download or stream whatever, whenever, wherever. Partly as a response to that, there’s been an increase in live music events with the intention to create a unique set of circumstances. The recent boom in music festivals is probably the most notable example of this, but there’s also been an uptick in shows that blend music with other forms of art, often in museums. Blood Orange‘s sunrise performance at MOMA on Sunday (June 21), in connection with the Yoko Ono celebration “Morning Peace,” is the latest example.
Dev Hynes, the singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist behind Blood Orange, may be best-known for his wide-ranging collaborations. He’s helped launch Sky Ferreira, Solange, and Carly Rae Jepsen into new phases of their careers. But his Blood Orange project has allowed him to embark on a focused exploration of sounds popular in the early ’80s: funk, post-punk, and new wave. The first Blood Orange album, Coastal Grooves, is careful and studied, but not always affecting. “Champagne Coast” is the standout, an impressive fusion of medium and message. The title offers a steamy fantasy — bubbly booze in a beautiful setting — and somehow, that’s what the track sounds like too.
Hynes brought this song back explicitly on his next release, Cupid Deluxe (the refrain drifts through “Time Will Tell”), but he didn’t need to — the whole album uses “Champagne Coast” as a jumping-off point. These tracks are wispy and light. Hynes follows in the footsteps of Sade or Luther Vandross, artists who dissected hard emotions under cover of plush, pretty arrangements.
In other words, this music is well-suited to sunrise. Similar to Sade, Hynes is over-reliant on the lone saxophone line, which at this point almost instantly descends into tackiness. One song on Cupid Deluxe makes a hook out of the trite phrase “it is what it is.” But the sunrise is cheesy too: it’s unbelievably predictable, yet it somehow retains a certain majesty.
At MOMA, Yoko Ono showed up to deliver a short speech — there’s currently an acclaimed exhibit of her work on display at the museum — and greeted the sun by dancing to Kavinsky, Fela Kuti, and Michael Jackson. That’s a tough act to follow, but Hynes had some tricks of his own: in addition to playing a few of his old songs, he filled his set with fresh material; new tunes for a new day.
His fragile sophisti-funk was sometimes hindered by a subpar sound system. The nuanced and subtle effects that Blood Orange achieves in the studio are difficult to repeat live, and though Hynes brought along two backup singers and a saxophone player to flesh out his immaculate compositions, the drums sounded crude and the horn wasn’t always discernible.
Still, Hynes’ melodies are durable and too sweet to be obscured, even if some of the details were absent. He opened with “Champagne Coast,” offering that up as the key to his sound. Working with his backing vocalists, they recited a sensual invitation over and over with damning persistence (“come into my bedroom”), but in such reverential tones that the come-on began to seem asexual. As the song came to an end, Hynes strapped on his guitar to play a series of fierce, choppy riffs, cutting through the pretty veneer. He did a similar thing with “You’re Not Good Enough,” pushing a soft funk tune towards the athletic vim of ’80s groove-bands like the Time.
The new songs were of a piece with the old. One opened with balladic grandeur of “All That,” a track that Hynes recently helped put together for Jepsen. Another channeled the vicious triplet beats common in early ’90s New Jack Swing. Hynes delivered a number of these in profile, silhouetted against the MOMA court yard, which served to emphasize the arrival of the new day and provided an imposing visual.
After the end of the Blood Orange portion of the event, Flat White (Virgil Abloh, a Kanye West associate with a footprint in fashion as well as music) played a DJ set with a different mission, resituating the morning in the heavy pulse of the present: Drake‘s “Know Yourself,” Young Thug‘s “Danny Glover,” Fetty Wap‘s “My Way,” A$AP Rocky‘s “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye Part 2,” and more. The crowd thinned out, but the mood and the movement intensified, and at one point a small mosh-pit formed. Ono was no longer around, but her example remained. The best way to greet the morning? Energetic dancing.