Now in its fifteenth year, the Friday edition of 2017’s Lovebox festival was a day of contrasts. Booking acts as varying as mainstream soul success Rag ‘N’ Bone Man, R&B royalty Frank Ocean, as well as Bulgarian techno impresario KiNK, House favourite Eats Everything, and turntablist DJ Jazzy Jeff all on the same day – the curation seemed to cater for almost any taste.
Such abundance of choice lacking clear direction has its downsides though, making the day an often jarring and overcrowded experience. Consequently, while KiNK was playing the dry ice and strobe-infested environs of the Fabric tent in the afternoon, the pulsating bass of Ray BLK’s set on the adjacent Noisey stage could be heard, as well as the inexplicably loud house of the fairground ride in between. Despite this weird blurring of generic boundaries, KiNK delivered a typically polished set. Dancing throughout while effortlessly blending live vinyl sampling with MIDI drum and keys triggering, as well as all manner of tech wizardry, KiNK transitioned from a Balearic-melodic opening into the acid squelch and electro of ‘90s rave, ending on the seething industrial bass sounds of techno.
Following Ray BLK on the Noisey stage was beat-maker extraordinaire Kaytranada. Although markedly different technically and sonically from KiNK, Kaytranada commanded his crowd with a similar ease, blasting through the hits from 99.9%, ‘Leave Me Alone’, ‘Glowed Up’ and ‘You’re The One’, all unified by his trademark Dilla-style bass swing. In a similar generic vein, DJ Jazzy Jeff – of Fresh Prince fame – showcased his crate digging skills on the open-air Corona Sunsets stage. Known for his impeccable mixing and scratching, for this appearance Jeff went for selection over technical ability, resulting in a veering set that encompassed everything from TLC to Biggie to Toto. Yet, with the sun shining gloriously and a perfectly-timed rendition of Will Smith’s ‘Summertime’, it was impossible not to dance along.
Mid-way through a summer full of festival appearances, Sampha drew one of the largest crowds of the day with fans eager to hear Process live. Aesthetically minimal with his four-piece band dressed all in white, Sampha amped up the danceable potential of tracks like ‘Plastic 1000C’ and ‘Blood On Me’ with bass-heavy arrangements. While on slower ballads like ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’ and ‘Too Much’ his powerful vocal came to the fore, showcasing just why his following is so huge.
Following Sampha, Solange delivered a perfectly-executed show, replete with artful choreography, tight Motown revue-style arrangements, and luscious vocal harmonies. Apparently having been hospitalised a mere 72 hours before, Solange informed the crowd – to huge cheers – that she had self-discharged for the show, and in her performance there was no trace of illness, just energy. She played on a frustratingly small stage, meaning much of the crowd couldn’t get in to hear the set properly – leaving them to the bass-bleed of the fairground rides once again. For those that did make it in though, they were treated to a horn-embellished rendition of ‘Cranes In The Sky’, the ‘80s synth-pop of True gems ‘Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work’ and ‘Bad Girls’, as well as a surprise feature from Sampha on closing number ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’.
To the final act: Frank Ocean. Anticipation was palpable, especially since Ocean has made a habit of cancelling European festival appearances last-minute this summer. Thirty minutes after the scheduled start time, and then without any fanfare, he strolled onto a platform into the middle of the crowd. Opening solo for ‘Solo’, accompanied by VHS visuals and sparse lighting, Ocean bravely launched into a medley of new numbers including ‘Chanel’, ‘Biking’ and ‘Lens’. Such bravery could be read as arrogance though; a show of disregard for audience preference, many of whom had travelled far and spent all day soaking in £6 beers for the privilege of self-serving self-absorption from the performer. This preference for the new continued throughout the hour-long set, which included only one song pre-Blond: ‘Thinkin Bout You’, which in itself was given a re-edit, meanwhile Ocean continued to perform in a state of non-performance, staring at the floor, pacing nonchalantly and mumbling throughout. With a minimal band of bass and guitars joining him for crowd pleasers ‘Pink + White’, ‘Nikes’, and ‘Nights’, things picked up and the crowd was enthralled. And then, as quickly as it began, Ocean murmured that he’d reached curfew and left.
Countering the lacklustre performance from Ocean, the production values of the show were captivating, with the visuals often feeling like video art replete with mise en abyme – this thanks to Spike Jonze filming them – well-timed lighting choices, and a Hello Kitty karaoke sing-along for ‘Nikes’. Yet, you couldn’t help but feel that Ocean would much rather be singing in the studio or alone for himself. Shutting himself off from the crowd with his eyes often closed and absurdly large ear protectors on, his nervousness was read as the indifference of an artist who has transcended the need to try and please a crowd. It was Solange, then, who took the crown for the day’s proceedings, showing real appreciation for her craft despite ill health and without disdain for the crowd in the process.
Words: Ammar Kalia