Determining the best set of last night's sold-out show at Red Rocks Ampitheatre depends on whom you ask about it. Though opener Anderson .Paak was able to lift the anxious crowd's hands into the air before sunset, it was Bryson Tiller who received the deafening screams of admiration from several thousand fans. Both artists performed sets that lasted about an hour each, and at many points in the evening, whether it was supposed to feel this way or not, the show came across like a co-headlining tour of performers both hitting their mainstream strides.
.Paak's full band, the Free Nationals, was one of the biggest surprises of his set: The fact that their expert playing came through so clearly over the recorded tracks was a breath of fresh air. This was no pop show; this was a soulful, funk-influenced display of the perfect blend of hip-hop and R&B in motion. .Paak himself also flexed his instrumental muscles, periodically bopping up to take a seat behind his drum set pulled to the front of the stage, and from there he was able to command the outdoor room with a multi-dimensional performance.
Tracks like "Milk N' Honey" and "Drugs" flowed together seamlessly, and even though he had less than an hour to give, .Paak played to the crowd like he was just getting warmed up. It wasn't until quite a few songs into his set that the artist dove into his celebrated 2016 release, Malibu, but once the lid was off, he went wild. "The Season/Carry Me" allowed .Paak to show off both his dancing and drumming skills; he zig-zagged his way across the stage with fancy footwork all the way over to his kit, which he played hard.
.Paak made you want to watch him as much as listen to him — no pandering lighting displays or visual effects, just .Paak and his ultra-tight band.
.Paak did so much in such a short span of time — his poetry came to three-dimensional life as songs like "Heart Don't Stand a Chance" and "Without You" burst brighter than their recorded versions. "Room in Here" brought the sensual nature of his persona front and center as the song's slight remixing gave it a dub-influenced new life. "Come Down," arguably .Paak's biggest banger off Malibu, burst forth with its Clyde Stubblefield-inspired beat, funky bass line and chant-worthy chorus.
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Unable to stay contained on the stage, the performer stepped into the audience, sharing his energy before heading back to play more of his own beats. Never pausing in what felt like a very short hour-long performance, .Paak outdid himself with an outro of the first few bars of David Bowie's "Let's Dance."
If .Paak got the crowd moving, Bryson Tiller got them screaming. Tiller's warm-up DJ did him no favors, haplessly throwing on easy pleaser tracks like Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money," Yo Gotti's "Down in the DM" and Travis Scott's "Antidote" to hype the audience, but no hype was needed. Tiller was a force all his own, a power even he seemed to be awestruck by. Wandering on stage in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball hat, Tiller didn't have to do anything but smile, really. And he didn't do much more than that throughout the night.
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At times, Tiller looked lost — on an empty stage with no band, backup singers or props, puffs of smoke from a fog machine his only companions. It was as if he was releasing songs like "Let ’Em Know," "Open (Interlude)" and "Set You Free" from his lungs, having no idea what to do with them other than, well, sing them. The accompanying visual effects going on behind Tiller were the equivalent of a crappy screensaver; there was either zero creative direction when it came to planning this tour or there was no advance planning at all.
At one point, there was a musical interlude from a dude sitting almost off-stage at a Moog Voyager, hinting to what could be if Tiller had some help from live instrumentation — and or any human movement on the stage other than his own. The soulful singer carried on, gracefully rolling out his hit, the Keith Sweat-looped "Ten Nine Fourteen" to a very satisfied crowd. "Exchange" had the fanatical masses singing along, giving Tiller the backing vocals he so desperately needed.
Between tracks like "For However Long" and "Overtime," Tiller explained his grateful grind, how simply posting a track to Soundcloud allowed him to be discovered — a discovery that brought him to the too-big Red Rocks stage, where he clearly wasn't ready to be performing. But none of it mattered; Tiller's fans were there for him, and as he closed with "Don't," they were ready to sing with him once again. With no time for an encore, the artist reappeared immediately for a final rendition of "Right My Wrongs." Tiller may have been alone on stage last night, but his audience was there for him the whole time.
It will be interesting to watch these two very different careers ascend. .Paak has the kind of flexible, durable talent and star power that only comes along once in a while, like a Stevie Wonder or St. Vincent. Tiller is the next big star in a long line of torch singers, able to capture the kind of sensuality that can only be conveyed through song. Their paths crossing on this tour seemed all but an accident — but if anything, it introduced each others' music to their own fan bases, who also might not have crossed paths otherwise.