Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals / Earl Sweatshirt / Thundercat PNE Amphitheatre, Vancouver BC, June 19

Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals / Earl Sweatshirt / Thundercat PNE Amphitheatre, Vancouver BC, June 19
Photo: Kim Jay
Forget the solstice: outdoor concerts are the true signifiers of summer, and Anderson .Paak kicked off the season in flaming hot fashion at the PNE Amphitheatre Wednesday night. The long-sold-out show was literally flaming hot: he brought more pyro than one might expect of his suave blend of hip-hop and Stax-style soul.
The night could hardly have been better, starting with bass wizard Thundercat, who melted minds with electronic funk and jazz. Many fans missed his 6:30 p.m. start time, and thus missed cosmic technical masterpieces like "A Fan's Mail (Tron Song Suite II)" and "Heartbreaks + Setbacks." But they arrived in time for more accessible favourites including "Friend Zone" and "Them Changes."
Next on the high-profile bill was Earl Sweatshirt. The heady, sedated rap and broken, crackling, beats of tracks like "The Mint" and "Wind in My Sails" offset Thundercat's dizzyingly (and dazzlingly) complex compositions. They also offset the dynamic package of charisma and technical finesse that was to come with Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals. Live, Earl is known for shuffling his feet, mumbling, and gazing up, down and all around, but last night, he was relatively (read: functionally) lucid.
.Paak began with "Heart Don't Stand a Chance." "Help me out, y'all!" he called out. But he didn't need help, and he didn't need to ask for it; fans screamed at the mere sight of him. He also introduced the Free Nationals at this point. Usually, that kind of acknowledgement comes well into the show, but when the band are as good as the Free Nationals, they deserve their dues at the top.
.Paak kicked it with more obvious pleasers from his 2016 breakthrough album, Malibu, including "The Bird," "Come Home," "The Waters," "Put Me Thru" and "Am I Wrong." But even Oxnard's many detractors would have been hard-pressed to criticize his club-oriented tracks after seeing how hard he and the band leaned into them. He didn't need Kendrick Lamar to help carry "Tints." Nothing could have humbled his most braggadocios song, "Bubblin." Even "6 Summers" was forgivable, despite its line, "Trump's got a lovechild, and I hope that bitch is buckwild," one of his corniest.
The vibe transformed during such songs. Rainbow colours disappeared in favour of stark monochromes. Laser lights fanned out towards the audience during "Jet Black" and his Kaytranada collab, "Glowed Up." And although it was a nice sentiment when .Paak called for the audience to glow up the amphitheatre with their phone lights, the communal act fell flat in the face of the ample natural light that still hung in the air.
.Paak ended the night of loving vibes on a sombre yet celebratory note, by honouring the late Mac Miller with their collaboration, "Dang!." "We miss you, Mac. We know you're here," .Paak said, reassuring the dearly departed as much as himself.
.Paak, stationed on a drum riser elevated several feet from the stage floor, descended out of sight, leaving the Free Nationals to wrap up "Dang!" on their own. On the digital screen behind them, a photo showed .Paak and Miller smiling together, a powerful, moving reminder that love not only lasts beyond loss, it might even get stronger because of it.

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