BY THOMAS CONNER Pop Music Critic
Frank Ocean performs Saturday night at Lollapalooza
in Chicago’s Grant Park. (Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)Saturday’s schedule at Lollapalooza came pre-loaded with excellent R&B. Too bad the afternoon evacuation on account of weather resulted in the cancellation of one of those acts, the widely acclaimed Alabama Shakes, but the rest more than made up for the deficit.
In the blazing sun and soupy, pre-storm heat, sly soul singer Aloe Blacc (E. Nathaniel Dawkins) strutted out to a jumping, genteel start. With a suited band, featuring two horns, Blacc opened by showing how widely soul music can reach — swinging from “Politician,” a lively groove stuffed with socially conscious lyrics (“This free country is not so free“), to a funky shaker celebrating more carnal concerns (“Her berries are sweeter and her melons are fat“).
Likewise, his cheerleading with the crowd see-sawed between “Love!” and “Peace!” But what he really wanted folks to do was dance. To that end, he made sure we were all on the same page, asking: “Y’all remember a TV show called ‘Soul Train’?” He then instructed the crowd to form the kind of dance lines popular on the long-running Chicago-born show.
Musically, Blacc moved through rich gospel, quoting soul standards and hip-shaking, wah-wah funk, all played and sung with a loose-limbed ease but a tight, professional snap. He closed with the bouncy rhythm of “I Need a Dollar,” which even included a kind of dub/reggae breakdown. Best part: The sign language interpreter was communicating with hips as much as hands.
Chicago’s own JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound opened Saturday’s lineup in Hutchinson Field.
Anders Lindall caught that set. Afterward, Brooks sat down with me for a quick chat about soul music, Frank Ocean and how to get an audience into the palm of your hand:
Late because of the rain delay, ballyhooed R&B savior Frank Ocean calmly and coolly kneaded an hourlong set that justified all the slobbering reviews of his recent album, “Channel Orange.”
A fixture in the media recently because of a game-changing blog post, in which he came out as bisexual, Ocean thankfully is not just another well-played piece of PR. Opening with an acoustic cover of Sade’s “By Your Side,” Ocean’s depth of vision and talent were quickly fathomable.
An ecstatic crowd around the Google Play stage cheered every breath he took, especially when he buttered them up a bit. “I see we got a little rain today,” Ocean said. “I’m happy you came back out. I wouldn’t miss y’all for the world.”
Performing with a four-piece band that didn’t back him so much as they painted sounds around him, Ocean exuded an alluring confidence. And why not? He’s got a strong voice that makes two- or three-octave leaps seem such a casual maneuver. He’s singing some of the most clever, sometimes quirky and engaging lyrics and lines. He possesses a musical vision light years beyond the modern R&B bump-and-grind standard. Songs like “Novocaine” and “Swim Good” flushed with spooky undercurrents (both musically and narratively), and “Strawberry Swing” swelled into a dramatic, Coldplay-esque anthem. Even if the storm hadn’t broken the heat, Ocean’s performance still would’ve made a perfect evening.