I had tickets to Childish Gambino’s Australian tour last year. I was super pumped about this because I spent a great deal of my final high school years listening to ‘3005’ on repeat. An added bonus was the fact the tour was taking place only six months after the release of ‘This is America’ and honestly, I was pretty keen to see that humble piece of art performed live so soon after its release.
And then the tour was cancelled.
Gambino had broken his foot and would be unable to perform the Australian shows he’d booked, which was, frankly, shattering. But here’s the thing: almost everyone I spoke to about this was on the same page and that page was that for most musicians, a broken foot wouldn’t impact their performance. The reason fans were generally understanding about the cancellation, people would go on to add, comes down to one simple fact: Childish Gambino isn’t most musicians. If you were ever in doubt about this, Donald Glover’s final performance under his iconic stage name in Melbourne last night would bring you to your senses.
Going in, I had high expectations. It was only three short months ago that I sat in my living room and streamed Gambino’s masterful Coachella set, after all. Once you’ve witnessed that, there’s no going back. But still I worked to keep my expectations in check. Coachella is a festival with unique staging, tens of thousands of attendees, and a level of expectation that requires the provision of an experience from an artist rather than just a simple one-hour set. Playing Rod Laver Arena on a Wednesday night didn’t exactly suggest the same experience.
And yet that’s exactly what we received. How an artist manages to condense a festival-sized show to a medium-sized arena while still generating the same energy and heights of artistry as they did at one of the world’s biggest music festivals is a mystery, but Gambino nailed it. More to the point, he did it with style.
In a purely musical sense, the performance was everything you wanted it to be. The setlist was varied and dynamic, with one of the best encores I’ve seen comprised of ‘Sober’, ‘3005’, ‘Sweatpants’, and ‘Redbone’. Gambino’s vocal talent is not to be overlooked. It’s especially impressive given he’s dancing at the same time, producing one of those moments when you really appreciate what goes into being an internationally-renowned artist. We may not explicitly see the months of tour preparation, but when a performance is done right, the hours of work that brought a musician to that point are right there in the details.
After Coachella, I spent a lot of time telling anyone who would listen about Gambino’s uncanny ability to hold an audience of thousands in the palm of his hand. That kind of stage presence is a next-level skill and was definitely on show in Melbourne. Somehow, impossibly, Gambino managed to create an intimate atmosphere in a venue that seats 15,000 guests. I’ve seen a lot of artists attempt this, with varying degrees of success, but Gambino takes the cake. He made my seat in the nosebleeds feel like a front-row VIP experience, and that’s a seriously impressive feat.
Of course, it would be wrong not to mention the inspired method of fan engagement Gambino brought to the show. Why settle for slapping hands with fans pressed up to barriers when you could take a short detour backstage and actually walk through the crowd? It’s a move I’m sure leaves his security team with migraines, but for Gambino, it’s a stroke of genius. It was a way of of bringing the room together, of breaking down that artist-fan barrier and connecting with his audience. There was something inherently genuine in the action, and that’s always refreshing when you’re attending the gig of a music heavyweight.
When you reach such heights of music fame, playing new content at a show can be risky business. There are a bunch of people in the audience who are there purely for the hits they heard on radio, which is completely fine. You should always go to a show for yourself, not for others. Don’t know all the songs? Get around the ones you love and deep dive into the artist’s discography later. There’s no room for judgement at a gig. But this can make a musician’s job difficult when they’re presenting a new track and trying to keep the audience on their feet at the same time. In Childish Gambino’s case, he took a literal approach to that task and turned a new song into one of the highlights of the night.
The simple act of coaching the crowd to essentially lose their minds when the beat dropped meant a portion of the show that could’ve easily caused revellers to lose interest had the crowd on their toes instead. Personally, I’m now not-so-patiently awaiting the song’s official release because spoiler alert: it’s great. But its seamless integration into the setlist might just be even better.
Gambino closed out the night with a selection of his greatest hits, but not before disappearing to side stage for the obligatory pre-encore breather. Except here’s the thing: this is an artist who does things his own way. There was no way he would follow the blueprint for the most predictable part of a live performance. Instead, Gambino’s face was projected on screen as a member of his crew attempted to convince him to return to stage for just one more song. Gambino prepared to concede by holding a hand to his ear and waiting for the thunderous response to confirm that, yes, this crowd does want you to come back for the last four songs. Heck, they’d listen to you for another four hours if you were into it.
As it was, we had one final encore to bid farewell to Childish Gambino. He exited the stage following a memorable rendition of ‘Redbone’ to the sounds of an audience that had got their money’s worth and more. Because seeing Childish Gambino live isn’t just your average gig. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to ‘3005’ on repeat and wait to see what Donald Glover does next.