Tonight, Devonté Hynes will lead his project, Blood Orange, in the second show of a stand at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater with several guests, in charitable performances for Opus 118 Harlem School of Music. Along with the matinee performance this afternoon, Hynes’ two shows at the Apollo were highly anticipated and, as such, sold out almost as quickly as a Bruce Springsteen concert. For the latter, timelessness is an accepted standard; for the former, critical acclaim has become his typical accompaniment, and the Apollo shows should stand to be something of a turning point for Hynes in terms of popular recognition, even in the face of his highly-touted collaboration with Carly Rae Jepsen earlier this year, “All That,” which he co-wrote, and the Saturday Night Live appearance which followed.
Before you go jettisoning yourself into superstardom at the Apollo, however, you must prepare yourself for the endeavor. On Thursday night, in a secret show at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, Hynes did just that, with an exclamation point.
What began as a dull Thursday for several hundred, myself included, quickly turned into one of nervous excitement, the kind you feel when you are personally invited to a party by a much cooler person than yourself. The disappointment of having been shut out of the Apollo ticket sales a few weeks ago evaporated during a casual stroll through, of all things, Instagram:
For a dude who once quit social media, Hynes was exploring its reach in an supremely utilitarian way. In any case, this was as welcome a post as any in quite some time. Who among us is going to turn down a $10 show from someone as talented as Dev Hynes? Adding the layer that the Blood Orange moniker implies makes it even more of an imperative appointment.
Arriving at Baby’s All Right, a bouncer greeted fans with a polite command to stand along a railing and leave room for the residents of the adjoining buildings: “You’d never believe how some of these people are. They say, ‘I can’t get out, my dog can’t get out, it’s too packed.’ Then you see the dog, and it’s this little ball of fluff.” Procuring wristbands was easy, once you proved to the aforementioned gentleman that you were, in fact, over 18 by reciting your South Carolina driver’s license ZIP code.
If you’ve never been to Baby’s All Right, or if you’ve only ever seen it on Master of None, where Aziz Ansari and Father John Misty expertly utilize it for comedic effect, the layout is as such: the front door leads to a bar, which wheels around to a restaurant on the right and, through another door, to the concert stage on the left. There is a dance floor below the stage, and everything is general admission. You can certainly do worse for $10.
A DJ playlist of disco and dream pop gave way to the opening act, Starchild & The New Romantic, at 9 pm. Flexing chops honed under the watchful eye of Hynes himself, who looked on from the audience, Starchild boasts credits backing, among others, Kindness and Solange. The band launched into an uproarious rendition of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Wishing Well,” which, you may have forgotten, is a positively delightful jam when cooked to the right temperature. The New Romantic displayed a tightness reminiscent of early ’60s soul and Dirty Mind-era Prince, while Starchild (real name Bryndon Cook) skillfully engaged the audience with Morris Day vibes and a dance move or two borrowed from peak James Brown. They even threw in a Hendrix-style cover of “Auld Lang Syne,” three weeks short of New Year’s, for good measure.
Starchild, whose members met while in school at SUNY Purchase, ripped through a set which lasted a little over half an hour but could easily have gone for three without complaint, if not for the man in the plain black hat. After an appropriate spell for instrument preparation, Hynes coolly led his band onstage, dressed in a denim jacket, his dreadlocks outlined against the deep purple stage lights.
Blood Orange sent the crowd into a frenzy, pleasing with selections from the project’s sublime full-length albums, 2011’s Coastal Grooves and 2013’s Cupid Deluxe (which James Vasiliou expertly reviewed on this site), in addition to new cuts, such as the protest-flavored “Sandra’s Smile.” As tight as The New Romantic is, Blood Orange is even better. At every sax break, the crowd ooh’ed; with each keyboard fill, it ahh’ed. The female vocalists dutifully sang harmonies, there was a cello solo, and Despot even joined for a performance of “Clipped On.”¹
Hynes’ demeanor is elusive and, in a way, can be frustrating. His overwhelming bashfulness routinely collides with a sensuality which could, at its best, make Marvin Gaye and Prince blush, but we see far more of the former than the latter. It’s almost pre-Red Taylor Swiftian, in that Hynes sometimes doesn’t seem certain whether people actually enjoy his music. That obliqueness then gives way to moments like this one, during the instrumental break of a song he was premiering live: “I don’t know why y’all aren’t dancing. To me, this is a fucking jam right here.”
His humble nature comes from a unique position, particularly given his features this year in The New York Times and The Atlantic, among others. Hynes is a Londoner who has lived in New York City (and, by extension, the United States) for several years. In that time, American racial politics culminated at the front of the collective agenda, and rightfully so. Concurrently, and perhaps not coincidentally, Hynes has gained popularity and, as such, a platform from which to express his feelings of disgust, pain and, more than anything else, hope. As a result, his writing (such as the aforementioned “Sandra’s Smile”) and social media posts have become explicitly more political, which may, in turn, inform his moments of stage fright ever so slightly.
In any case, none of that subtracts from his live show. If anything, it breeds moments of surprise, the transcendent passages of time when a crowd becomes one around the artist. It is a clichéd, tired trope to compare a musical display to a religious experience, but at its best, that is a concert’s function. That isn’t to say that a musician is attempting to be a priest, rabbi or imam simply by plucking some chords and singing words of disillusionment and anxiety, but the best live musicians do breed in an audience a sense of community, the feeling that only those present and those who have experienced the same feeling understand.
Through his performance to a few hundred at Baby’s All Right, and, hopefully, to a few thousand more this weekend at the Apollo, Dev Hynes reaches the masses, captivating them with his expert musicianship and mesmerizing movement onstage. Unique mastery of ’80s and ’90s pop gives Hynes a head start on catching the ears of many more. With that, it wouldn’t be hard to envision a forthcoming world in which Hynes uses a secret show to prepare for a run at Madison Square Garden, the most hallowed of secular churches.
¹Because I can’t keep track of everything, extra research came courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan’s review of the show.