Blood Orange, the latest endeavor of Dev Hynes (formerly of dance-punk mavens Test Icicles and indie folk-rock project Lightspeed Champion) released its third album, Freetown Sound, earlier this year to great critical acclaim. On it, Hynes continues to expand his musical palate, mixing elements of R&B and electronica with influences from those earlier projects to create what is almost certainly one of the most eclectic, exciting releases of 2016.
Freetown Sound is almost certainly a difficult album to recreate live, filled as it is with many layers and complexities, and yet that’s exactly what Hynes accomplished at his performance at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC. The show opened, like the album, with “By Ourselves” with its excerpt from Ashlee Haze’s “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)” playing over a darkened stage which suddenly burst into activity as Hynes entered with the opening notes of “Augustine.” Flanked on either side by a backing band consisting of a saxophonist, a bassist, a drummer, a keyboardist, and two backing singers, Hynes danced over the stage and switched frequently between guitar, keyboards, and cello himself as the songs called for it. While the album itself is full of guest appearances – including, amongst others, Carly Rae Jepsen, Empress Of, Debby Harry, and Nell Furtado – for this performance all of their parts were handled by Hynes and his two singers (each of whom took a turn at center stage). These parts were handled so effectively that nothing seemed to be missing. Hynes and his band played a long set, consisting of all but one track from Freetown Sound, several selections from the previous Blood Orange album Cupid Deluxe, and “Bad Girls,” the b-side to the first Blood Orange single “Dinner.”
A seated venue may have seemed like an odd choice for such active, danceable music, but there was a theatrical component to the show as well. Transitions between songs were often accomplished with a darkening of the stage, and projections on a two-piece screen at the back provided, at times, images of cityscapes and abstract paintings, and at others, color washes which picked up the shadows of the performers in front of it to create a chiaroscuro effect. Hynes was joined at times by a trio of dancers, and at other times those dancers projected silhouettes from behind the screens. All-in-all, the show felt like not just a concert, but a larger piece of performance art.
Hynes frequently gets comparisons with Prince, even more so in the wake of the latter’s death. And such comparisons are certainly fair, as it is clear that Hynes has taken many lessons and cues from the Purple One, both in his fusion of R&B with numerous other stylings, and in his sense of theatricality. Yet it is also clear that he is an artist in his own right, forging his own path, and Freetown Sound and its associated live performance serve to take his creative growth up another level. Hynes has been known in the past for choosing to rarely perform live, but based on the strength of this show we can only hope that this is changing and that we’ll be seeing him on the stage for many more times to come.