Koko – July 5th
Blood Orange shows are a rarity. Such are their infrequency, each time Devonte Hynes returns to London it feels less like a homecoming and more like a visit from a much-loved American relative.
“Eight years ago…that was the last time I was here”, announces Hynes half way through his set, in near disbelief. Yes, it’s been a long time since his last performance at Koko and, oh, how things have changed.
In the heart of Camden, Koko’s well-worn grandeur was a primary witness to the halcyon days of the indie revival, the scene in which Hynes first made his name with trashy dance-rock outfit Test Icicles. After disbanding the band in 2006, he relocated to America, firstly to Omaha (briefly) as indie/folk troubadour Lightspeed Champion, and then another transformation in New York as 80s-RnB/new-wave aficionado Blood Orange, his most settled and successful creation to date.
New York has become Hynes’ muse. Street recordings from Washington Park make apparitions throughout Freetown Sound, as do the voices of local artists and legends, both old and new; Debbie Harry, Starchild, Venus Extravaganza, Kelsey Lu, the list goes on. As Hynes fully immersed himself in the history and subcultures of his adopted hometown, his work concurrently began an introspective exploration of race, queerness and identity. While race and queerness are woven into the tapestry of multicultural New York, a new political context emerged in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement (not to mention the Pulse Shootings a few weeks ago). These events contribute to the tides that move his latest album Freetown Sound (released last week – 1 Jul) and the artist that returns to London. To quote his Instagram, “My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way…it’s a clapback”.
And yet for all this think-piece fodder (thoughtful and insightful, though it is), one thing that is perhaps lost in all the earnest opinion pieces is just how fun Blood Orange is. The show’s opening mirrors Freetown; a sample of the emotionally-charged “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliot Poem)”, written and performed by Ashlee Haze. It’s political overtones build the tension but the rest of the set slinks and slides it’s way forward in joyful synchronicity: it’s chic af.
It doesn’t take long for Hynes to crack out his best moves for ‘It Is What It Is’. His dancing has become the stuff of legends and it’s clearly a high point for the audience who enthusiastically whoop with each bodily contortion. Tonight’s special guests try to rise to the occasion but miss the mark. BEA1991 wears what looks like the entire skin of an Orca whale while Adam Bainbridge’s (Kindness) attempts at dancing and crowd interaction are a little cringe, but neither upset the show.
By the midway point Hynes and his five piece band are in full flow, especially backing singer Ava Raiin (also featured on the new album) who comes forward for a spellbinding rendition of Freetown favourite ‘Best of You’. Hynes pleases the crowd with a hefty portion of older tracks, including a thumping run through of disco number ‘Uncle ACE’ and a jaunty, funk-fuelled take down of ‘Sutphin Boulevard’.
Despite Freetown’s political nature and tonight’s establishment bashing (Hynes calls Rupert Murdoch a “prick” and Nigel Farage “an even bigger prick”), the show feels more like a communion. A dancing, uplifting love-in for those who feel jaded by recent events (or just jaded generally). Dev concludes with an encore of ‘All That’, a number he co-wrote and produced for Carly Rae Jepsen. Alone, sat at his keyboard, Dev forelornly sings the line, “I’ll be your lighthouse when you’re lost at sea/I’ll keep my light on, baby, you can always come to me”. Okay Dev, if you insist.