Yes, we find ourselves at the end of another amazing summer season at the Hollywood Bowl. For this final show of 2017, Solange headlined a night of stellar pop at the venue appropriately dubbed “Cosmic Journey” (named as such as a loving nod to her second album track of the name). Billed as a night sort-of curated by Solange, it featured a bevy of pop stars reinventing the sounds commonly considered R&B, pop and dance. Wisely programmed giving openers only a handful of songs—as opposed to the standard thirty minutes–ascending until headliners Blood Orange, it was a night of few moments wasted.
Openers Kelsey Lu and stellar newcomer Moses Sumney opened the show with two songs a piece. Trio KING (featuring twin sisters Amber and Paris Strother and Anita Bias) had just a smidge longer. They played three songs to the gigantic crowd, which was as a matter of fact sold-out all the way to the back of the venue.
Kelela inched that progression forward, playing a lean four-song set. Accompanied by one turntablist and one keyboardist, the majority of her music and effects were triggered. She opened with “Frontline.” Awash in a sea of electronics, the song was a solid example of her approach to alternative R&B. “Rewind” continued the flow as her voice was echoplexed and re-layered on top of her voice. Kelela’s sultry approach was further amplified by “Go All Night (Let Me Roll),” a song that lyrically expressed exactly what you think it would be. Finally, “The High” continued exactly in that vein. It opened on the lyric, “My lips are creeping up your neck / You shiver and try to pull back.” It was short compared to an average set to be sure, but this might have been just the right duration of set time for Kelela. Not too much, not too little, just enough to get you excited about hearing her, and just enough to leave you wanting more.
Devonte Hynes’ project Blood Orange came next. For those unfamiliar, Hynes first came on the scene literally a decade ago under his band Lightspeed Champion. After a brief hiatus he reemerged under the moniker Blood Orange and has proceeded to release three albums as that name of ever more ingenious R&B. Blood Orange’s set was the first of the night that could basically be considered a standard set length. Comprised of six songs, he opened strong on “Better Than Me.” Most impressive amidst the music played was the elaborate nature of the arrangements. Hynes was accompanied by a trio of backing singers, drums, bass, guitar and a versatile brass player. A long jam introduced “Chamakay” as he wisely allowed his drummer or a backing singer to take the forefront in the mix all while he nimbly played a funky guitar melody. He played two newer songs this evening, “Charcoal Baby” and “Nappy Wonder,” both impressive in their stature and ambition. For the set’s finale he moved to the back riser and introduced singer Empress Of (Lorely Rodriguez) who took the lead on set closer “Best To You.”
Solange had the longest set break of the night. At the Hollywood Bowl the noise curfew is legendary, and it looked at one point if her set did not begin she would not be able to play a satisfactory length to close out the night. Thankfully, her band appeared and the set began just in time to allow for a solid hour-long set. Solange’s set design was staged like a ziggurat, a stepped pyramid vaulting backwards up to the ceiling. In the middle of the white steps was a massive inflated white sphere. By our count, the regular players of Solange’s band numbered six (keyboards, drums, guitar, bass and two horn players) and she had two back-up singers. At the set’s beginning, however, the ziggurat’s steps featured a bonus thirteen string players. Depending on the song, they would either not be present, or would variably be replaced by fourteen additional brass players. That’s a huge retinue of backing musicians for someone not sporting their own orchestra.
The set opened dramatically on “Rise,” the lead track from her beloved recent album, A Seat at the Table. Solange, her musicians and back-up singers all had simple dance moves they would do when major stabs of melody would hit. This motif would be structured through nearly every song she performed. From there, four of the next five songs also came from A Seat at the Table. “Weary,” “Cranes in The Sky” and “Don’t You Wait” followed and each was rendered with lush, Philip Glass-style atmospherics, more in line with Sun Ra’s brand of texture than the sunny, hyper gloss of conventional R&B. Things went looser from there as she went for nimble delivery on “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work.”
“Mad” was simpler, a flutter of delicately plucked piano keys while Solange cooed softly along with her backing singers. “F.U.B.U.” might have been the single defining moment of the night. By this point, most of the capacity crowd was on their feet dancing joyously. Solange took the opportunity to head off stage and up through as much of the crowd as she could, dancing and singing sometimes face-to-face with fans. There’s a confidence in play here that one might rarely find in music. The lyrics alone encapsulate the attitude present. She sings, “All my niggas let the whole world know / Play this song and sing it on your own terms / For us, this shit is for us.” While sadly, nothing from her under appreciated second album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams made its way into the set, she did go way further back and pulled one song from her very first album, “Crush,” a song recorded when she was only fifteen years old.
As the set neared conclusion, Solange brought out Dev Hynes for a trio of songs they collaborated on for her 2012 EP True. “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Bad Girls (Verdine Version)” and “Losing You” took the atmospherics of the early part of the set and blew them up into funky enthusiasm. As Hynes left the stage, Solange ended off the set with an elongated version of her hit song “Don’t Touch My Hair.” As the song’s outro refrain added extra energy to the music, Solange turned the ending into a frenetic dance freak-out. She brought out all the night’s performers to help sing the final lines of the song. It was just enough time to give the full performance this set required. One song less might have been just a bit too little, but this was an excellent and worthy headlining set from Solange. She displayed with confidence how she is one of the best, bold new voices in the venerable genre we call R&B.
File photo by Owen Ela