Upon arriving at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox (the unabridged name of the restaurant and bar on 20th Street) on January 11 for the first of the Pharcyde’s back-to-back performances, a couple friends and I took in the scene around us and waited to order drinks as a bartender toasted marshmallows with a blowtorch for some other person’s fancy $12 cocktail. We had to order our draft beers in chilled glasses, since there were no beer bottles or cans or PBR tallboys at this venue. Ophelia’s is one of those spots in which you feel self-consciously cool, a sensation only heightened if you've ever been there when the place hosts burlesque shows or hires bowler-hat-wearing DJs to spin records on an underground stage that’s visible from a wrap-around veranda on the main level. Sometimes, those shows provide background tuneage while patrons scarf eggs Benedict and swig mimosas at brunch.
Certainly, no one would have batted an eye if the Pharcyde had been booked at Cervantes'. The group still has some pull. While the Pharcyde hasn’t released a new album since 2004, even now the hip-hop act manages to ride high off its three LPs — the first two of which, especially 1992’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, cemented its legendary status in its native Los Angeles and beyond.
But with the state of Denver’s hip-hop scene and its level of support from local audiences always up for debate, I was curious to see how the Pharcyde would fare at the not-so-obvious venue in town. Given the limited capacity and $40+ tickets to be on the floor level, what kind of vibe and audience would materialize during the Pharcyde’s first concert of 2019?
Fast-forward to the height of the action.
By 10:30 p.m., we’d already heard “Hey You” from Labcabincalifornia and “Ya Mama” from Bizarre Ride, and the sold-out crowd — which was impressively diverse for Denver — was dancing hard and not holding back any enthusiasm for a performance that only built in energy and debauchery throughout the evening (as the cool shows do).
Credit goes to Imani (real name Emandu Wilcox) and Bootie Brown (Romye Robinson) — as well as their skinny-tie-wearing DJ who looked like Ben Folds if he had black hair and was excellent at scratching — who invested themselves in the performance to the point of exhaustion. As only three musicians on stage, two of them MC’s, it was always going be a task to transfix, then hold the attention of, a crowd many times their size, but the Pharcyde accomplished that purely with energy. Imani’s face became a cascade of sweat, other times a shifting palate of expressions as far-out and weird as Jim Carrey’s in The Mask. Bootie Brown played his cool counterpart, his mustache and black polyester jacket a fitting homage to the early ’90s.
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The performance was simultaneously exciting and nostalgic. At times, the venue streamed video footage of the show on a big screen above the stage, and a friend mentioned to me how the footage's grainy quality made it look like a VHS taping of a 1992 Pharcyde show, which is exactly the kind of experience we as an audience wanted: a throwback.
Sure, the Pharcyde may have shed more than half its original members and producers during a quarter-century run, but Imani and Bootie Brown can still make us feel the magic of the group's peak creative output. Moreover, as an answer to my initial curiosities, Ophelia's turned out to be a special, intimate, memorable place to see the group. Imani and Bootie Brown saved the Pharcyde's most famous songs, "Runnin'" and "Passin' Me By," for last — which predictably pleased the crowd — but I was already more than impressed by everything that had preceded it.
Kudos to the group and to Ophelia's for a standout collaboration. The Pharcyde's second show tonight is not yet sold out. It's worth it.