Midway through his February 13 concert at Denver's Fillmore Auditorium, Anderson .Paak towered above the crowd and his band on an elevated platform. The 33-year-old R&B and hip-hop artist was singing and playing drums at the same time, giving each beat of the tune “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” from 2016’s Malibu a sharp whaaaaap! on the snare.
The effect was that, within the sold-out auditorium, people’s hips cracked from one side to the other each time Paak came down on the snare, everyone just as locked into the groove as his talented band, the Free Nationals.
Having heard this tune many times over the years, I knew right where the groove was supposed to end, and was surprised to hear it evolve into a keyboard solo and then into a dramatic, syncopated buildup, both of which are not part of the recorded version.
Paak delivered exactly what I look for in a show: precise and impressive musicianship and songs that have been rearranged and reimagined, so that the audience experiences something different from what they’ve already heard on albums.
The concert was a spectacle.
Paak wasn’t just high up on his elevated platform; he was riding high. “I said I’d be back. But you didn’t know I’d be back with a motherfucking GRAMMY!" he shouted to loud cheers at the beginning of the concert. (Just three days earlier in Los Angeles, he'd won for Best Rap Performance for “Bubblin”).
Throughout the show, Paak switched between his perch behind the drums and the front of the stage to sing. But he was never hard to spot, wearing matching checkerboard-patterned shirt and shorts as well as a furry orange bucket hat — a get-up that looked like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-era Hunter S. Thompson meets Rick James.
Paak’s tour, which began on Monday in San Francisco (making Denver his second stop) is titled Andy’s Beach Club, although the impression I had from the opening tracks of the concert, including “The Chase” and “Who R U?” from 2018’s Oxnard, was less beach club and more of a trip to the circus on acid, complete with plumes of pressurized smoke (or water vapor) that shot up in sync with the music.
The concert also included delightfully cheesy elements, suggesting the playful nature of the musicians and their genuine enjoyment performing these songs.
“Ah, shiiiiiiiiit, Colorado,” remarked the Free Nationalists’ keyboardist, Ron Avant, after the song “6 Summers.” Avant was an aesthetic phenomenon himself, wearing TRON glasses and a psychedelic bandanna that funneled his long black hair behind him, like he was some playa steampunker running the coolest camp at Burning Man.
Paak's main line between songs, used at least three times, was “Are you still out there?!,” making me wonder: Was it time for him to take off his sunglasses?
Among those of us still obviously out there was a guy next to me who, with a mountain-man mustache and plaid shirt, looked like shorter version of Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec. Short Swanson had bought three $12 tall-boys of Coors, two of which he stuffed into his back pockets. He was plastered, wobbling like a spinning top; eventually, a wing-bro flocked to his aid and placed hands on either side of Swanson to make sure he didn’t fall over. During “Put Me Thru,” Swanson was stretching out both arms with each verse, as if trying to grasp the music in his palm.
(The wing-bro smartly took him out of the crowd before the encore, when security guards started to take notice.)
The encore occurred after Paak finished his main set with “Tints,” which had backup support from the excellent opener of the show, singer-songwriter Tayla Parx (the co-writer on Ariana Grande's "thank u, next," among other hits).
Paak and the Free Nationals then kept up the crowd’s energy with “Am I Wrong.”
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The show wrapped with a touching, capstone moment when Paak honored Mac Miller, performing the late rapper’s song “Dang!” An image of Miller and Paak grinning together filled a screen as Miller's vocals were piped into the auditorium.
“We love you, Mac,” Paak said.
And with that, he ended the show.