How many nights could Dave Chappelle have sold out Radio City Music Hall? In his first big-theater New York gig since his much-analyzed exit from The Chappelle Show in 2005, tickets for the first five nights went so quickly he added four more, this time with a different musical star sharing each bill; a tenth solo evening was tacked on much later, and it, too, quickly hit capacity.
Those who worried the addition of top-shelf musical acts would shortchange the comedy, with Chappelle acting less like the star than an emcee, needn't have: Fans got almost an hour of material before intermission, whereupon tonight's guest Erykah Badu played a more-than-full set.
"I'm sorry I'm smokin' in your face," Chappelle began, addressing some well heeled audience members in the front row. He explained that flouting local indoor-smoking bans was "performance art — doing things in front of white people that they can't do." That thought led to an irony-laden anecdote in which crack-smoking Toronto mayor Rob Ford refused to waive that city's ban so Chappelle could use the cigarettes he thought were crucial to his act. If only the gig had come after his own habits were public knowledge, Ford might have offered to indulge alongside him.
Chappelle's set was full of strong riffs, which frequently doubled back on themselves — he managed to mock Mel Gibson while scoring with some tongue-in-cheek anti-semitic paranoia; championed LGBT progress while mocking the appearance of a transgender man; and played both sides of the fence about O.J. Simpson. But after admitting that "standup is not a bicycle," Chappelle treaded water for a spell with short topical bits that didn't always connect. After an especially hackish joke about suicide bombers, he defended himself by saying he was still warming up.
Count Erykah Badu among those entertainers who believe in finishing their warmups before walking onto the Radio City stage. Fully in charge even when a skit required her to feign confusion, the singer exuded confidence in what proved, over the evening, to be the case: Plenty of people were as excited to see her as they were to see her long-absent host.
Wearing an exaggerated stovepipe hat and a puffy, pear-shaped dress, Badu started and ended the show with the help of an entire orchestra. (Nas, who joined Chappelle Monday, also had orchestral backing.) Opening with "Out My Mind, Just in Time," from her most recent record, she started with tightly arranged numbers before stretching out, starting with "Me," to more vamp-friendly small band arrangements. "Appletree" was a standout, even if Badu's drum-machine solo didn't quite compare to the work of the two percussionists behind her; the star-crossed love song "Next Lifetime" brought the house to life. The room longed to become a dance party during the set's second half, but ushers (who had — miracle of miracles! — been busy actually enforcing a cell phone ban during Chappelle's set) stood guard, refusing to let balcony or back-of-the-room patrons sneak into free space near the stage.
The orchestra returned near the end for a great quietstorm take on "Otherside of the Game," which built to a bit of stratospheric vocal pyrotechnics unlike the jazz-inflected soul Badu usually delivers. After taking a break for a big hug from Chappelle, who once toured with Badu's band and was watching offstage, she returned for an encore. Here, the projected TV clips behind the band (of comedy stars from Lucille Ball to Richard Pryor) hardly matched the tone or content of her songs. But little could distract from "Bag Lady," the last show of the night, which was as animated a bit of soulful storytelling as anything on the set list.
This review first appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.