Better Than: Seeing either of these guys in a festival setting, which seems to be the only way you’re going to these days.
Last night Fader magazine and Vitamin Water’s collaborative Uncapped tour series hosted their grand finale at the Lower East Side’s Angel Orensanz Center. The performers were billed as “surprise guests,” though rumors flew leading up to the door’s opening at 8 p.m. Some reported that Bon Iver would stop by after his recent run of Radio City Music Hall shows. Others buzzed that Frank Ocean would be making an appearance after his stint at ATP. In the end, the surprise was much bigger than we thought: Frank Ocean and Bon Iver would be playing together.
For the couple of hundred lanyard-slinging media and RSVP-savvy concertgoers who got in, the scene that greeted them couldn’t have been more fitting for the artists about to take the stage. The Angel Orensanz Center, now a contemporary arts community space, was built as a 19th-century synagogue, complete with looming Gothic arches and three-tiered balconies. Bathed behind tufts of smoke and a faint blue-and-red glow, a stool stood in front of a microphone stand suggested that the show would provide the kind of intimacy that fans have come to expect from both of the night’s headliners.
There’s no denying that Frank Ocean and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon share certain lovey aesthetics; both are singer/songwriters beneath their fronts, both evoke pit-of-your-stomach sadness set against happy nostalgia, both find solace in the peculiar pairing of heartbroken, story-telling R&B and the washed-out pulses of alt-rock. Both have been recruited onto projects by Kanye. (No, Kanye did not make the appearance that many of us had hoped he would.) Bon Iver won the Grammy for Best New Artist last year, and Frank Ocean is a frontrunner this year. Last night, both artists wore headbands — it worked better for one than the other.
Ocean, an L.A.-via-New Orleans native, has a smooth, self-assured, schoolboy charm to him, one that’s born out of shyness than cockiness. Aside from his spot-on vocals, this quiet confidence and smiling gentleness is Ocean’s greatest asset on stage. Over the course of an hour-long set, the singer — backed by a suited two-man band (No John Mayer) — went through hits like “Thinking About You,” “Novacane,” “Sweet Life,” and “Pyramids,” often sparking a choir-like echo from the audience amid his gorgeously executed octave-spanning hooks. “We Made It in America” and “Strawberry Swing” came as additional, unexpected highlights, dense with warm memories of forgotten youth and the American Dream. One of the most spectacular things about Ocean is that he delivers the same sentiments with the same force live as he does on his records.
Vernon’s brand of nostalgia is reflected in him as well; tall, white, beardy, quiet, mumbly, reverb soaked, and born from a cabin in the woods. But the Vernon whose “Lump Sum” and “Skinny Love” undoubtedly sparked millions of late-night phone calls between long-lost lovers has changed since his second album (or maybe it was his Grammy win). The Bon Iver that took the stage last night — complete with a ragtag band of fellow shaggy, beardy fellows (No John Mayer) — did not deliver the log-burning, campfire warm-and-fuzzies that one might have expected. It was only on the reverb-drowning, autotuned echo behind “Woods” that Vernon ever truly owned the stage on the same level of precious familiarity as his music.
“Calgary,” a personal favorite, was performed with pomp, the horns far outweighing the angst behind Vernon’s moans. “Creature Fear’s” quiet folksy twangs were played live as a massive, crashing battle of reverb. “Holocene” and “Skinny Love” cued massive sing-a-longs, of course, though by then, his smooth-jazz jam-band stage act was more and more reminiscent of an indie Dave Matthews Band. And while Bon Iver’s fans remained true with most of the audience singing in unison to “Skinny Love” long after Vernon had left the stage, he proved better on the iPod than in the flesh.
Critical Bias: Earlier in the evening, I joked that Frank Ocean would make me tear up. And then he actually did.
Overheard: “He’s not gay. That’s not politically correct. He’s not bi, either. He’s just not mad at a penis.” — Deep discussion of Frank Ocean overheard in the media area. Oof.
Random Notebook Dump: John Locke spotted in the VIP.