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It’s rare that a perfect match occurs between performer and venue. Often, the actual room, its shape, mood and acoustics, are secondary to the performers themselves. Which is why, last night at an honest-to-gosh Synagogue, watching Frank Ocean and Bon Iver perform to a completely packed house, the perfect conflation of musician and concert hall stood out especially.
The concert, sponsored by Vitamin Water and held in conjunction with the music/fashion magazine Fader, was part of their Uncapped series, an ongoing effort to have the indie kids and the hip-hop heads rub elbows a bit by placing a rapper and an indie act on the same bill and hoping nobody gets in a fight.
Admittedly, Bon Iver and Frank Ocean make a lot of sense together on a bill. Both make quiet music, stuff that doesn’t necessarily grab you by the lapels with its brilliance, instead inviting the listener in to look around and assess for themselves. The second proper project for both, Bon Iver’s self-titled album and Ocean’s Channel Orange, won them nearly universal acclaim and the sort of cultural ubiquity that neither seems particularly comfortable rising to. Both are household names, rising out of the underground to make auteurial statements read as genuine, personal expression. But while Ocean is still ascendant, things seem to be winding down for Bon Iver, with bandleader Justin Vernon recently intimating in interviews that he’d soon be retiring the project.
That waxing/waning duality was overtly evident last night—though he’s arguably a major star, Ocean still rarely performs live, making his last-minute addition to the lineup a legitimate “event.” The crowd seemed heavily Ocean-centric, a fair portion of them siphoning out of the venue after his performance. Playing with a full live band, Ocean seemed more at ease in the synagogue than reports of his previous concerts portrayed him, making small talk between songs and foregoing a setlist in favor of whatever his whims dictated. Material was split roughly evenly between Channel Orange and his masterful debut mixtape nostalgia.Ultra, though the live band arrangements often deviated from the tracks’ recorded iterations. Ocean is a casual performer, with no elaborate dance moves or overly attention-grabbing shenanigans. He’s just sort of there, and yet it works, completely and unequivocally. The crowd was often completely silent, as if under his spell. At the end of his set, he casually announced that he was now going to perform “Pyramids,” the masterful ten-minute single from Channel Orange, and that’s exactly what he did.
After roughly an hour of the crowd enthusiastically attacking the open bar, Bon Iver took the stage. With a solid chunk of the crowd no longer in the venue, the band’s set felt perfunctory in a way, Vernon and company running through their songs proficiently but failing to receive nearly as reverent a treatment as Ocean. It was fine, sure, but it was in no way going to eclipse the previous performance. In a way, it was prophetic. If Bon Iver will truly end soon, at least there’s a new force to take up his mantle.