Is there anything Donald Glover can't do?
Doesn't seem like it.
The singer/rapper/bandleader/songwriter/comedian/writer/actor who calls himself Childish Gambino when making music had a new task before him Tuesday night in South Philadelphia.
His job was to put on a show big enough to fill the Wells Fargo Center that was also audacious enough to employ his sundry talents in a live setting.
The arena wasn't entirely sold out, but it was close enough, an impressive feat for an artist without a deep catalog whose celebrity is derived as much from his acting on his FX series Atlanta (and most recently as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story) as his music. But the gifted polymath has long since proved his seriousness on the musical side, overcoming the initial skepticism he faced earlier this decade when he began his career as a rapper.
The depth of the connection that Glover as Gambino has forged with his young, diverse audience was apparent Tuesday. That was clear from the lines at the merch stand, which were as long as they were last week during Elton John's farewell tour, to the way the audience as a whole rapped along in unison to cuts like "3005" and "Sweatpants" from 2013's Because the Internet.
After an opening set by the Mississippi duo Rae Sremmurd, in which rapper Swae Lee carried the day while his brother Slim Jxmmi was AWOL off stage for most of the performance, Gambino appeared shirtless at the end of a runway that jutted into the center of the arena floor. Just a day away from appearing at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles the night before, the intensely focused frontman certainly showed no signs of jet lag.
He opened with "Algorhythm," a song that has not been officially released but was shared exclusively with ticket buyers. It set the preaching-to-the-faithful revival-meeting tone of a not-a-moment-wasted show that took in a range of black music history, from gospel to '70s soul to rap.
"As we stand together, promise me that we'll teach the children that we must be free," Gambino intoned, surrounded by a cone of light on the edge of the darkened stage. "There is no joy in sorrow, no truth untold."
When that song was done, Gambino continued the revival-meeting theme, stressing that those in attendance were there to share in a communal event with one another, not to be broadcast to the world. "This is not a concert: This is church," he said, and asked fans to put their phones down, because the show "isn't for them," meaning those not in the building eager to get a peep on social media. "It's for you. You bought the ticket. Let's have an experience."
Glover also repeated the assertion he first made last year that this will be "the last Childish Gambino tour," a claim that seems dubious coming from a 34-year-old artist who was about to demonstrate the range of his abilities and zeal for sweaty, transcendent live performance.
The show was visually stunning without relying on an excess of choreographed stage moves or fancy video. For the most part, the stage was darkened, lit by a lone spotlight, and dazzling, deftly employed laser lights. The superb, wide-ranging funk-rock-R&B-hip-hop band was in an orchestra pit, split onto either side of the runway on which Glover moved.
For "Have Some Love," from Awaken My Love!, the 2016 album in which Glover remade Gambino as a George Clinton-meets-Prince funkateer, he was joined onstage by four powerfully voiced female backup singers, and then disappeared.
Four dancers were used with similar strategic restraint, appearing for the set-closing "This Is America," adding physical grace and celebration-of-life energy to a song about a gun-crazy country and the threat of violence that African Americans live in danger of daily.
The show also had its fair share of light-on-its-feet moments to go with the herky-jerky dance moves and high seriousness Gambino displays in the video for "This Is America."
He sashayed with a spring in his step on his two new hot and sticky jams, "Summertime Magic" and "Feels Like Summer."
Early on in the show, he disappeared backstage (with camera following him) and then emerged in the crowd in the arena's lower bowl, showing off a convincing falsetto and eliciting "Where is he now?" oohs and ahhs in a feat of old-fashioned showmanship.
And that fluttery voice — and a shrieking, high-pitched emotive wail — was also deftly deployed during "Redbone," the irresistible funk jam that closed the show with Gambino making his way through the crowd, and making his exit at the end of a tight, 90-minute performance.