Live Review: Childish Gambino
Iowa Memorial Union, 4.16.12, Iowa City, IA
I had really been looking forward to seeing the Childish Gambino show here at the University of Iowa ever since our good friends at SCOPE announced the show some months ago. Then came word that Donald Glover had broken his foot. The show was then cancelled, and I don’t blame the man. All I had known about his live show was that the performance was high-energy, and one can’t exactly roam the stage with boot on. While disappointed, I couldn’t fault a man that would take a monetary hit rather than put on a substandard show. Dates got rescheduled, but due to the mass exodus of people from Iowa City during the summers, the show here was cancelled. By some sort of witchcraft, carrot-dangling by SCOPE, or good-heartedness by Glover, the show was rescheduled mere weeks after the breakage, and only two days after his boot-laden performance at Coachella. I don’t know what brought Childish Gambino to Iowa in the wake of the unfortunate events that had happened in the weeks preceding, but, man - I’m glad he did.
Originally meant to open for Childish Gambino was Danny Brown. Unfortunately, the rising star was unable to reschedule alongside Glover, and the short notice to find an opener was felt. As the Iowa Memorial Union began to fill with every sort of delightfully drunken miscreant that can be found in Iowa City, DJ Rich Rok took to the stage with minimal fanfare. Over the course of his brief set, Rich Rok did his best to win over the people, but the crowd was sadly not very involved. The crowd would come to life occasionally when they’d recognize a song coming through in the mix, but for the most part, the crowd seemed more interested in texting and trying to elbow their way closer for Gambino. Rich Rok did an admirable job with the time he was given, but anybody is going to have a difficult time when dealing with a disinterested crowd, and that’s only exacerbated when the act is a DJ. I’d like to see what Rich Rok could do with a crowd that was feeling what he was doing, but it was not to be this night. Nobody could have won over this crowd without completely pandering and not being true to his or her own self.
Within minutes of the end of Rich Rok’s set, any questions about the excitement level for Childish Gambino were immediately answered. Chants of “CHILDISH!” deafened the house music, and the rush for the stage that usually accompanies a group taking the stage was seen a solid thirty minutes before Glover’s scheduled appearance. Hell, not even the standard-for-a-rap-show twenty minute delay could do anything to dampen the anticipation. As expected, the opening strains of “Outside” brought the crowd even closer to the stage and everyone moving. However, the immediate follow-up with Camp standout “Firefly” was what really ignited the evening. I’ve been going to shows in this area for at least a decade now, and I can say with complete confidence that I have never seen a crowd go this completely nuts. Sure, I’ve seen rowdier shows, but never a complete crowd. From the gate to well past the mixing board, the entirety of the crowd was busy dancing, singing along, or even pogoing around as if at a mid-nineties punk show.
While the anticipation played a large factor in the massive crowd response, the main reason for the eruption was Donald Glover. Despite the recent injury, Glover maintained a near-manic level of energy throughout the entire set. Not even slower tracks like “All the Shine” could prevent the man from roaming all corners of the stage, leaping off several of the many tiers on the stage, or even leaving the stage itself to spit a few lines from the photo pit. What little exposure to live hip hop I’ve had has shown me that these shows live and die by the charisma of the lead man, and Childish Gambino has to be counted as one of the best in that department. Even when the production values take the forefront through disorienting strobes and blinding spotlights, it is simply impossible to take one’s eyes away from Glover. If there was any downside to the show, it’s that Glover’s magnetic performance poached attention from his wildly talented backing band. No simple reliance on prerecorded material was to be found, instead relying on the group of five backing musicians to create the dense sounds. No one member stayed put with one instrument for very long, with members switching from guitars to synthesizers to violins and even auxiliary percussion, depending on the song. “Freaks and Geeks” stole the show with its dueling violins, “You See Me” found Glover playing directly to one lucky young woman in the front, and show closer “Sunrise” made absolutely sure that both the artists on stage and everyone in the crowd had nothing left in the tank.
I can’t say that I’m very familiar with hip-hop in general, but I’m even less familiar when it comes to live hip-hop. That said, I can say that Childish Gambino put on one of the most energetic shows I’ve ever seen and one of the better shows of any genre that I’ve seen in quite some time. Even performing with what appeared to be a foot brace could not slow down Donald Glover for any noticeable amount time. Every song kept the crowd in the palm of the group’s collective hand, even when they left the surefire hits of Camp. I had no idea on what to expect from Childish Gambino in general, and Glover’s broken foot only further clouded my prospects. In the end, Glover’s radiant charisma, an incredibly talented backing band, and a truly buckwild crowd made Childish Gambino’s performance truly memorable.
Thanks again to Zoey Miller and SCOPE Productions for all of their help with the show, and thanks to Zak Neumann for the photos and showing up on time for once. We've got a few more shows coming up with SCOPE, and they're big ones...