It was almost 7 years ago that Blood Orange played Johnny Brenda’s on a weekday to about 12 people, one of whom was a sweet townie who sat on a barstool two feet from the stage. That night, Dev Hynes, the eclectic singer-songerwriter of Guyanese descent, tore through an emotional, energy packed set for all 12 of us attendees with just his guitar and a laptop, bouncing from stage to crowd, owning the space, inviting us in to share that moment. Thursday’s show at The Fillmore to a packed, swaying, diverse crowd of orange haired punks, Hood By Air wearing queer goths of color, and Fishtown hipsters (amongst others), kept that same energy.
Opening the set with a dreamy rendition of “Charcoal Baby,” the standout track from Blood Orange’s latest album Negro Swan, Hynes and his crew of six backup musicians ignited the crowd and set the tone for the soulful, southern-black-church by way of 1980’s sun and pastel drenched neo-noir that would follow. It was evident, then, that Hynes had come a long way since his debut album Coastal Grooves, and even further from his days in screamo bands like Test Icicles; the stage was masterfully, purposefully filled with a rhythm section opposite a keyboardist and saxophonist on two (2!) high rises, and an angelic assembly of back-up vocalists. The mood of Negro Swan is airy and precise, allowing for a live translation bursting with nostalgic grooves and strange, spatial chord changes so subtle that they sound massive.
In stunning contrast, opener Yves Tumor, whose album Safe In The Hands of Love is clawing its way up my top ten of the year, was a hyper-kinetic blur, chewing up the vast Fillmore stage with urgency before spilling off of it, choosing to close his total turn-up of a set on top of the guard rail. Tumor’s set-up consisted of himself — a punk troubador studded boots and cowboy hat, part Marvin Gaye, part Merzbow — and perhaps a computer or sampler; no back-up musicians. His crunchy, sample-laden noisy R&B (think more Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad than, say, late ’90’s P. Diddy) was the only accompaniment needed as the sound seemed to envelop him, transporting both performer and audience to another world.
When it was Blood Orange’s turn to go minimal, he did so in dramatic fashion. After whirling through a powerful first half where soon-to-be hits like “Saint” where deconstructed and aired out, a set that saw Hynes bouncing from grand piano to surfy electric guitar, the lights dimmed and, cast against simply a black background, Hynes returned with just a keyboard and his voice, playing tracks from Coastal and his second album Cupid Deluxe. Despite the Fillmore’s clearly impressive sound system, the presence of tape hiss under the backing tracks lent a certain charm to this segment, perhaps throwing back to Hynes’ basement party / bedroom producer roots. After witnessing Hynes’ helm projects for pop divas like Solange and Sky Ferreira in the years since Coastal‘s 2011 release, it was absolutely goosebumps -inducing to hear those songs performed in such a minimalist atmosphere. And though the transition from various stage set ups was perhaps jarring, the band returned, deftly rendering the anthems “It Is What It Is” and the elegaic stomper “Chamakay” to spiritual heights.
The full Blood Orange experience was on display, as throughout the night it felt like the singer was creating a space for conversations about Black masculinity / femininity, the lived duality of being an artist of color in white spaces, and just, simply, being your perfect, swan-like self. Between songs, vocal samples helped fill in the gap where the powerful lyrical message might have been missed amidst the party: “My favorite images are those where someone who isn’t supposed to be there, who’s in a space where we were not invited, yet we walk in and show all the way up.” Having seen the progression of Blood Orange from post-punk survivalist to international star, it’s more than safe to say that Hynes is doing just that — showing all the way up and gracefully bringing the rest of us along with him.