Published Sep 22, 2016On Freetown Sound, Dev Hynes, performing as Blood Orange, managed something most artists spend their entire careers chasing: he made a deeply political album sound personal. And for the Toronto stop of his woefully too-short tour in support of the record, the notoriously shy musician threaded yet another needle, bringing that intimacy to a sold-out concert hall filled with fawning fans.
Performing with no opener, the first sound the audience heard was poet Ashlee Haze's spoken word Missy Elliott piece that opens Freetown, after which Hynes and a pair of backup singers, including Freetown Sound contributor Ava Raiin, took the stage. Hynes quickly seated himself at a keyboard at the front of stage left, working through "By Ourselves" before they were joined by the rest of Hynes' backing band.
Over the throbbing pulse of "Augustine," Hynes quickly revealed himself to be as dynamic a performer as he is a musician. Clad in black pants, black leather hat, white t-shirt and an open white button-up that flowed behind him, he spun round the stage in between turns at the mic, shimmied during grooves and locked his joints to the strong percussive moments. Musically, he was a flurry of activity throughout the night, deftly switching between guitar, piano and even a cello for the disorienting opening moments of "E.V.P.," a highlight in a set filled with them.
Freetown is an album defined as much by its guest vocalists as much as it is by Hynes. With artists like Nelly Furtado, Debbie Harry and Carly Rae Jepsen clearly unable to follow their studio collaborator on the road, it fell to the band's backing singers to perform some of the record's key moments, and they did so with aplomb. Taking centre stage for "Hadron Collider" and a stunning "Best to You" on which the singers eventually traded vocal lines, smiling as they whipped off the song's rapid-fire bridge, their mini-showcase was technically excellent, their back and forth infectiously charming.
The focus throughout the night was on the songs, almost all of which came from Freetown. Even the interstitial passages that link many of the record's tracks were included, played through the house P.A. system. Though he knowingly cribbed moves from iconic artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, it never felt as if Hynes was trying to make a spectacle of himself. His movements were organic reactions to the music, and he was frequently silhouetted against the two large white screens positioned in the middle of the stage. It was hard not to marvel at the joy he clearly gleans from performing. While singing "But You" with a pre-recorded backing track, his band members could be seen in the crowd taking in Hynes performance, smiles slapped across all their faces.
Similarly, rather than letting his extremely talented backing musicians flash their chops with showy solos and lengthy instrumental breaks, Hynes instead opted to let small moments — the deep bass tone of "E.V.P.," the slinky guitar lines on "You're Never Enough," one of the rare non-Freetown tracks he played that was not from Freetown Sound — shine on their own.
The evening ended with Cupid Deluxe highlight "Uncle ACE," the only time Hynes and his band really let themselves loose musically. There was no encore, but Hynes' job was done; he'd managed to thrill a packed concert hall without sacrificing the headphone intimacy of his beloved recordings.