Review: Here’s what happened at Dave Chappelle and John Mayer’s secretive no-phones concert

Pop Music Critic

It’s one thing to find out that Dave Chappelle knows all the words to the Radiohead song “Creep.” And it’s another to discover that the famous comedian gets a kick out of singing it at his favorite strip-club karaoke night in Portland, Ore.

As funny as this information is, though, the real comedy in Chappelle’s off-kilter predilection can’t merely be described; it needs to be enacted, which is what happened Friday night at the Hollywood Palladium, where Chappelle played the first of three collaborative gigs with the singer and guitarist John Mayer.

As the latter expertly picked out Radiohead’s moody arpeggios, Chappelle delivered the song’s bitter words about self-disgust while simultaneously miming his enjoyment of the fleshly display surrounding him. And when Mayer reached “Creep’s” chorus, with its signature eruption of distorted guitar, the comedian flared his eyes in a pitch-perfect parody of white-guy rage.


Improbably or not, these two have been pals since at least the early 2000s, when Mayer — known for his blues-guitar chops and for goopy ballads like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” — put in an appearance on Chappelle’s acclaimed Comedy Central series.

What they’ve developed over that time is a keen sense for how to complement each other: the way Mayer, playing the lick from the Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes,” will set up Chappelle for a joke about how chipper ’90s-era alternative rock sounds like “Shrek music.” Or the opening Chappelle will give Mayer to demonstrate Drake’s use of the same five musical notes in all of his songs.

They’re calling this live show “Controlled Danger,” after a phrase Chappelle said Mayer once used in a text message about their plans for an evening out on the town. (In April the duo brought “Controlled Danger” to San Francisco; they’ll replay the Palladium on Saturday before moving to the larger Forum for New Year’s Eve.)

On Friday, the control in question seemed also to have to do with secrecy. Showgoers were required to place their cellphones in small locked bags that kept anyone from shooting photos or videos.

It’s not like they were protecting some proprietary formula. The two-hour concert began with Mayer performing a brief solo set, then had Chappelle doing stand-up; after that, Mayer returned and the pair spent the rest of the show onstage together.

Rather, the imposed intimacy felt like a means of creating a kind of safe space for the entertainers to experiment — to discover how tight they could get their odd-couple mind-meld.


That yearning for safety is pretty rich, of course, coming from two men notorious for their rough verbal treatment of certain groups: the women Mayer has spoken about indiscreetly, for example, or the transgender people Chappelle has repeatedly targeted in his routines.

Indeed, the Palladium show included a lamely mean-spirited account of the comedian’s run-in with a massage therapist in a fancy San Francisco hotel.

I wish someone had been able to film it and put it on YouTube in the (likely futile) hope that Chappelle might finally be shamed into examining his transphobia.

He was far better when punching upward, as when he compared white liberals’ exasperation with President Trump — who’s “scary to watch,” he said, “like seeing a crack pipe in your Uber driver’s seat” — to the way African Americans have always felt in this country.

And you could tell how much he relished the opportunity to roast the power players accused of sexual misconduct in Hollywood — or, as he referred to it, “the world capital of rape.”

With Mayer’s help, Chappelle did a hilarious bit about how hearing the theme from “Footloose” might’ve transformed last summer’s tiki-torch mob in Charlottesville into harmless street dancers. They were also both good throwing out not-quite-formed thoughts regarding celebrity’s effect on a man’s sexual desirability; here you could really feel the private-workshop factor as they jumped around the complicated topic, getting progressively closer to its heat.

The same went for Mayer’s impressive set, which was much looser than his solo tour from earlier this year. Wearing a short, kimono-style robe emblazoned with a Grateful Dead logo, the singer played guitar and triggered samples and programmed drums in dramatically rearranged versions of tunes from his most recent album, “The Search for Everything.”

At one point in “Moving On and Getting Over,” the music morphed into Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” over which Mayer then layered Frank Ocean’s vocals from his and Calvin Harris’ hit “Slide” — a dizzying pile-up that made you realize how broad Mayer’s stylistic appetite has grown since he first emerged.

To finish his solo portion of the show he pulled off another clever mash-up, combining his “Waiting on the World to Change” with George Michael’s “Freedom ’90,” which is about taking the steps to make change happen.

As Chappelle stepped onstage to grasp the baton, he seemed pumped up by his friend’s music.

He’d come before us to “speak recklessly,” he declared, and he wasn’t afraid to be booed.

Twitter: @mikaelwood


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