Donald Glover put his heart and soul into this performance.
Appearing at the end of the stage’s runway, surrounded by faces tilted upwards with awe, Childish Gambino appeared bathed in light. Shirtless in white baggy pants, Gambino, soon to be known solely as Donald Glover, bowed his head as his own voice sang passionately through the speakers. Some distance away, from their riser atop the moveable LED screens the band unleashed dramatic, gospel-indebted flourishes, while at their feet a choir, adorned in matching vestments, augmented Glover’s disembodied vocal as he slowly raised his face.
The statement made by the show’s introduction was to provide a showcase through not just the grand scale of the production, but of the emotion intended to be communicated through such means. Ambiguity, after all, does not wash in an arena.
“This is church!” exclaimed Glover following the first song proper, ‘Algorythm’. Name-checking the devil and including the line ‘Everybody wanna get chose like Moses’, the track decried society’s addiction to technology, and so it made sense that he then asked everyone to put their phones down. “This is the last Childish Gambino show ever. This is for us in here, not for them out there. I want you to experience this now.”
With his set at Splendour in the Grass scheduled for this weekend, Glover presumably meant that we were at the final Melbourne performance of this musical project, which he announced he would be retiring even before his scheduled Melbourne show from last year was cancelled.
Clearly Glover was determined to make up for that delay, as over the following hour and a half he exhibited a formidable commitment to the task at hand, constantly dancing, jogging, writhing and grimacing – his stage persona having assimilated that of the ‘This Is America’ video — while singing and rapping his arse off. The show itself was expertly put together and executed, beginning and ending exactly on time with not a second that felt unplanned, but without ever feeling disingenuous. Despite the stadium setting, Glover’s entreaty that we participate in the experience, and his entire delivery, felt earnest, even urgent, and decidedly of the moment.
Thankfully the band seemed unaware of the front of house mix that rendered the first few songs a cacophonous mess, and though this was resolved, the volume remained obnoxiously high. A team of stage personnel moved the segmented LED screens, and occasionally funnelled smoke machines somehow through them, while a video crew raced up and downstairs in order to remain focused on Glover. Watching the relayed footage via the screens on either side of the stage, it was obvious that Glover was constantly aware of their lens, moving his face into the lighting and exaggerating his expressions in reaction to the lyrics, an actor inhabiting his role.
If there was a fault with the arrangements it was that too often the band transitioned into a heavy rock or funk jam during a song’s final quarter, a trick they pulled on just about every other number. A five-piece, comprised of drums, percussion, bass/bass synth, keys and guitar/synth, the musicians more than held their own, though at points it felt as if they were being asked to embellish in order to mask deficiencies amongst the less sturdy of the songs.
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“[Shot Gambino on] my iPhone, what do y’all think?” – Freaks and Geeks @childishgambino • I’ve looked up to Donald Glover since I was about 14 so seeing him perform as @childishgambino for the last time was bittersweet. Thank you Donald ❤️ • 🎧 Redbone live at Rod Laver Arena
As on record, Glover’s vocal was highly effected, which did occasionally feel overly synthesised, but his natural abilities both as a singer and rapper nevertheless shone through.
Showcasing recent singles, new material, a handful of tracks from because the internet and a middle section focusing on “Awaken, My Love!”, the highlights were his two biggest songs. The band actually took a break during ‘This Is America’, perhaps because the backing track did such a good job on its own of sounding alternatively sunny and disconcertingly violent and it featured some incredible backup dancers who recreated its think-piece-inducing video, while Glover grimaced, strutted and bared his teeth.
Putting seemingly all of his remaining energy into the high-energy rap barrage of ‘IV. sweatpants’, Glover again strode to the end of the runway and literally dropped the mic, staring out defiantly. Turning towards the band he held up a fist and pounded the air in time with the kick drum, the instantly recognisable opening of ‘Redbone’.
If these are indeed the last ever Childish Gambino shows, Glover will have left behind a rich catalogue and one stone-cold classic, which he and the band delivered perfectly. If that was the last we see of Donald Glover in this guise it seemed like a fitting farewell, an experience to be treasured long after the lights from the stage and the phones held aloft had dimmed.