Many concerts are great. But far more rare are the really special ones — Frank Ocean’s 2017 dates, Beyonce’s “Lemonade” tour, Kanye West’s “Pablo” jaunt with the “flying stage” come to mind — that even those who attend dozens of shows a year experience only occasionally. The shows where an artist is at a certain peak in their career; where they’re performing songs that define or at least illuminate the immediate era and/or the culture; where the show is so good that it showers a warm sense of communal happiness over the crowd that can linger for days, and you find yourself smiling at strangers after it’s over — the collective feeling that’s really the ultimate concert experience, which sounds so corny to describe but isn’t when you’re feeling it.
Childish Gambino’s concert at Madison Square Garden Friday night was one of those.
Gambino — a.k.a., of course, singer-rapper-actor Donald Glover — is on an upward trajectory that’s rarely seen for a musical artist, let alone an is-there-anything-he-can’t-do polymath who channels so much creativity into so many different projects. This year alone, he’s dropped multiple projects in a variety of disciplines: several new songs — including the fiercely political and era-defining “This Is America,” with its subtext-loaded video — from a forthcoming and apparently final album that few people have heard; the second season of his FX series “Atlanta”; a versatile turn on “Saturday Night Live” that showcased both his comic and musical ability; a co-starring spot in “Star Wars”; and this tour, also apparently his last, which is in itself a work of art. He even played an intimate 45-minute set for around 600 people at Rihanna’s Diamond Ball in New York the night before this concert, which was equally memorable for different reasons. And still resonating is his 2016 hit “Redbone,” for which he won a Grammy in January. (For all his creative talents, the biggest takeaway from this show may be appreciation for his time-management abilities.)
It’s a daring concert. He’s playing a lot of new material much of the audience hasn’t heard — always a risk, but especially for an arena-level artist — including the opening “Algorhythm,” and on this night he debuted yet another new song (“This is some new shit I’ve been working on,” he said casually). The new material was dropped in between favorites from his last two albums, “Awaken, My Love!” and “Because the Internet,” along with a pair from his 2014 “STN MTN/Kauai” mixtape and snippets of others.
The presentation is visually stunning, with an arena-filling light show, lots of dry ice and pair of 50-foot tall video banks that move between the center and the sides of the stage; large video screens were on either side, showing both the stage and often members of the crowd. During the rap songs, the lights would occasionally answer and accentuate the lyrics. At several points during the show, cameramen followed Glover offstage — and once trailed him backstage, then through a series of hallways into the arena proper, where he walked past the concession stands, through an entrance and finally into the seats (somewhere around section 108) — “I thought I’d get a better view,” he said as the band vamped — and into the crowd, where thousands of cellphone cameras flashed he gradually made his way through the aisles and back onto the stage.
And although he gave the 10-piece band and four dancers plenty of shine, the show is really all Glover — and it’s a testament to his talent and magnetism that he can not only carry but dazzle throughout a 90-minute concert, on a giant arena stage, mostly by himself (shirtless, no less). He sings, he raps, he croons in falsetto and does soul-man shouts. There’s plenty of his trademark, loose-limbed, muscle-jerking dancing — and he even broke out a new, semi-moonwalk move, “Hey, check this out” — but also many moments of quiet intensity, and he has the rare ability to be intimate with 18,000 people. Early in the set he yelled, “If you’re feeling this sh– say ‘Hell yeah!’”; thousands did. He said yet again that this is the “last Childish Gambino tour ever,” and asked the audience not to focus on documenting it with their phones and instead be in “the experience” (to little avail). At another point he sat down onstage and said, “I remember coming here to see my favorite rap acts when I was [a student] at NYU,” and talked about how years ago, hip-hop wasn’t the mainstream, as it is now — “it was, like, a small thing.”
After around an hour and a dozen or so songs, the four backing singers broke into the “Na na na-na” chant from “This Is America,” and the house erupted as Glover and the dancers broke into their familiar loose-limbed moves from the video, bounding through a crowd-pleasing extended version of the song — and then it was “Thank you and good night!” After a few minutes, the video screens showed Glover standing with a couple of associates backstage, visibly assessing whether the crowd was cheering loudly enough. After four “eh” reactions, it finally passed muster, and Glover and the band returned to the stage for a four-song encore: “Sober,” “3005,” “Sweatpants,” and finally, of course the most unlikely hit single of 2016, the Grammy-winning classic soul groove “Redbone,” which had the crowd swooning as Glover busted out his best Prince impersonation on the falsetto notes before he thanked the crowd again and dropped his mic, this time for good.
The house lights came up, leaving the crowd wanting maybe a little more — but with echoes of the sumptuous, wah-wah hook of the impossible-to-follow “Redbone” providing a perfect soundtrack for whatever this Friday night might bring next.