On the heels of Oxnard, his wildly-popular Aftermath debut and third full-length LP, the hottest artist across the cultural zeitgeist is Anderson .Paak. I’d add arguably, but if we’re being honest about the mainstream and the underground, it’s hardly a contest. The Dr. Dre-helmed smash-hit album scorched the charts upon detonation in November, a veritable mushroom cloud for the enigmatic singer/rapper/drummer/bandleader with the mountain of mojo. Dominating playlists in the streets and between the sheets since he dropped his iconic sophomore masterpiece, Malibu, in 2016, the man they used to call Breezy Lovejoy is clearly on some other shit.
After selling out theaters from coast to coast on the strength of the Oxnard buzz and throwing down already-legendary live sets (like Suwannee Hulaween 2016, and here in San Francisco on a nostalgic New Years Eve 2017), now comes time for Brandon Paak Anderson to take it back to the stage and prove it all over again. I would not—and DID NOT—bet against him.
[Photo: Anderson .Paak Twitter]
From barber to coffee shop, stoop hang to corner spot, skate park to lift line, liquor store to health food stand, there was a palpable sense of clairvoyant anticipation rippling around the country as this tour approached, exacerbated from steady flame to five-alarm-fire when, on Sunday night, .Paak collected his first-ever Grammy for the pre-Oxnard single, “Bubblin’”. No doubt buoyed by the win, after the ceremony, homie showed up and showed out at The Roots‘ legendary annual GRAMMY-JAM in Los Angeles, a crown prince holding court ’til the wee hours of the night. Less than twenty-four hours later, it was go time at The Masonic in San Francisco. Anderson .Paak responded by putting the whole game on notice.
As usual, .Paak rallied road warriors The Free Nationals for yet another stateside sojourn as his trusty backing band. He randomly met them in the parking lot of an apartment building nearly a decade ago—still in the Breezy era—and the squadron remains his ride or die to this day. The First Church of Goon Baptists added ubiquitous trumpet player Maurice “Mo Betta” Brown (Talib Kweli, Tedeschi Trucks Band, MEGAWATT) to the touring lineup for maximum impact and swagger. Stakes were high as Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals barreled into the Bay Area for the opening night of the curiously-named, hilariously-themed Andy’s Beach Club, aka the Oxnard World Tour 2019. Sold out to the gills, the capacity crowd was raging, and people were ready for battle on what was nothing if not a manic Monday night at the Masonic.
Just after 8 p.m., opener Taylor Parx sufficiently warmed up the rapidly filling venue, delivering some colorful pop-tinged R&B over programmed beats and recordings. In short order, the Masonic was brimming with an enthusiastic massive who respectfully enjoyed Parx but were audibly frothing for the main event. After a short intermission, the lights went down and, in an instant, the curtain up. Then, a deafening roar inflated the room. Silhouettes appeared behind the stage veil, a lusty groove began to saunter from the speaker stacks, the sweet smell of sensi a natural mystic in the air.
Hold on and ride for your own
Together in spirit form
With your hands I can hold
In your heart there is hope.
.Paak was clad in a bucket hat and patterned tie-dye getup that would have made the late Hunter S. Thompson blush. The Gonzo was strong, “The Chase” was on, the Prodigal Son had returned, and before long, the natives were restless. The blaxploitation swag that defines Oxnard‘s opening salvo was the ideal embarkation point for what would be a streamlined seventy-two-minute smoke-show. To start, .Paak and the Free Nationals were hidden behind an enormous stage-wide curtain, only visible in the shadows of a colossal sun. The man of the hour laid down his first of many funky beats on a trap kit, sitting atop a comically-large drum riser, setting the proverbial tone whilst singing his heart out on “The Chase”. He then darted into view to an ovation, reveling in full frontman mode on Oxnard cut “Who R U?”. The Free Nationals continued to rock the house behind the curtain until it came down in earnest for the crunkalogic “Bubblin'”.
[Video: Instagram user @Foiiiis10]
On this night, it seemed an intention had been set and laser focus placed on the team thriving onstage as a true live band instead of relying on backing tracks so heavily as they have in the past. Rest assured, the hip-hop sh*t remained a major element, and it was left to the steady hands of Lo_Def (Callum Conner, DJ and programming), who scratched and sampled in pre-recorded parts while the band (and the funky drummer) coalesced around these cuts. It was crystal clear by the time the boys unleashed the intoxicating ratchet-trap of “Bubblin'” that, indeed, killing was their business—and on this night, boy was business ever good. When the charismatic .Paak arrived (with yo’ mama) at the Marriott for a belly-flop, the response was a thunderclap that threatened the structural integrity of The Masonic.
The Free Nationals are the perfect foil for Anderson .Paak. Onstage, they move together as one with visible kinetic chemistry. Jose Miguel Serrano Rios handles guitar duties on the wing, while Kelsey Miguel Gonzalez holds him down on bass and background vocals. Maybe most impressive of the “Free Nash” cats is keyboardist Ron Jerome Avant, aka T-NAVA, who complimented .Paak with choice contributions on (homemade?) synths, Fender Rhodes and piano.
There was a percussionist in the wings who augmented .Paak on a drum kit next to the large riser. Throughout the show, he would support .Paak as he toggled from front and center back to the main drum set that looked out at the whole theater. Omnipresent NYC horn hero Maurice Brown is the newest member of the touring ensemble, as the trumpet wizard was added just in time for this tour. Mo Betta kept it classy, and got in where he fit in all night long.
[Video: Instagram user @cali_fabricated]
Piloting the wayback machine toward 2012 debut Venice for the gully, profane “Milk & Honey”, .Paak raced back to the drum kit and lit up hi-hats and sizzlin’ snares like a human 808 machine while simultaneously spitting the furious verses with authority. The low-end rumble sounded like a locomotive rolling, but the master of ceremonies never once lost his cadence while banging out the beats. With a giant jumbotron flanking the entire band and arena-rock pyrotechnic explosions, Anderson .Paak embraced some ambitious production elements to create Andy’s Beach Club. However, the focus and attention on the stage was placed squarely on the music early and often. It stayed there for the duration of the performance, as .Paak repeatedly left jaws agape with his feverish energy as both rambunctious bandleader and dazzling drummer.
The juiced-crew forwarded Kaytranada’s boisterous bass-anthem, “Glowed Up”, and once again, our safety was in question as the masses lost their minds on the dancefloor. Apparently sensing imminent danger, .Paak steered the bombastic Quebecois ship to a safe space, a well-lubricated punky-reggae-skank that slowed our roll considerably, but did not for a moment dim our glow. .Paak channeled that vibe into three consecutive Oxnard joints, beginning with the pointed, topical “6 Summers.” This quasi-controversial number featured impassioned, empowering pleas atop an irresistible hip-hop jam with a provocative hook. From there, most of the Free Nationals left the stage as Lo_Def and A.Paak detoured into some proper boom-bap aesthetics on “Saviors Road”. While the lush 9th Wonder production rang out into the ether, .Paak took the opportunity to stage dive into the audience and horizontally-deliver the verses from his back, crowd surfing and spitting atop the outstretched arms of the teeming GA floor. Before you knew it, there he was back up on the drum riser, crooning sweet nothings on “Smile/Petty”. Nothing short of amazing, here we stood under his greatness, and he’d only been on stage for half an hour.
Among the most beloved cuts found on what many consider a perfect album, Malibu’s “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” arrived to 3,500 swollen heart chakras bursting wide open. Again, .Paak assumed his throne on the drum kit and belted out the number, which was delivered in a Dilla-fied style. .Paak had that classic Detroit-deli, flam-snare rim-shot going, the patented off-beat/on-beat click with T-NAVA’s Fender Rhodes voicings way up in the mix. The track featured a short and sweet keytar solo, while Maurice Brown’s trumpet serenaded skyward and the whole room sang at the top of their lungs. .Paak offered this humble nod to Mr. Yancey with much style and grace, yet without ever really deviating from what makes “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” so special to so many, the paean’s bold emotional quotient. The man whose name was on the marquee kept it real as the stone in your crown, and he held the entire room in the palm of his hand.
“Heart Don’t Stand a Chance”
[Video: Instagram user @jobrien505]
.Paak gave his bandmates some well-deserved shine for The Free National‘s tune “Beauty & Essex”, which provided the singer a brief breather before he commandeered the enraptured room into a chilled-out take on the West Coast G-Funk of Oxnard’s “Anywhere”. Unfortunately, the track’s featured guest, Snoop Dogg, didn’t show up blunt-in-hand rocking a mink and a pair of gators, but T-NAVA was on point with those bright and bouncy pianos. .Paak made sure to remind everybody that when it comes to doing it anywhere, there’s no shame in a little 112, but if you’re really trying to knock boots, the true playas know that El Debarge is still the rhythm of the night.
.Paak then stunned the Masonic by digging deep for Venice cut “Might Be”, and before anybody could even think about finding a sink, you could hear the panties hit the floor. This tune does something serious to the ladies, and the entire venue was levitating on half-a-cup of that lean and ’bout a half an ounce of that tree. The chosen one kicked the seductive verses with panache, and got his shimmy on proper. “Might Be” cracks a window into how .Paak carried it half-a-dozen years ago when he first put this song down on wax. Then came the dusty boom-bap drop that announces the Madlib-produced “The Waters” (Malibu). Despite the chilly temps, this was some pure, uncut hood gospel. We’re a long way from the Chumash casinos, but damn if the kid wasn’t rollin’ like Doc Holliday, a visionary in a vintage Chevy, cookin’ gumbo and whippin’ up voodoo like a Jefferson Parish pastor, with Mo Betta Brown and the Fellowship of Free Nationals right by his side.
.Paak reappeared behind the drum kit for the Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave-produced gem “Trippy”—in this writer’s opinion, the finest cut on Oxnard. The live rendition lacked J. Cole‘s hot verse but more than made up for it with a grandiose, layered arrangement complete with .Paak pounding out that patented Daddy vibe atop the gigantic riser. The psychedelic overtones within “Trippy” resonated deeply in the city that hosted the original Summer of Love. Again, the Free Nationals laid a lush foundation and Maurice “Mo Betta” Brown found some dynamic spots for trumpet tones to soar. A couple of classics followed, beginning with the passionate R&B pleading of “Put Me Thru”, which saw keyboardist T-NAVA get his Chick Corea on quite nicely as .Paak flexed his jazz-kit chops a bit as well.
[Video: Instagram user @cali_fabricated]
Next up was a sweet departure in “Suede” from NxWorries, .Paak’s revered collaboration with undergound producer Knxwledge. During this ice-cold afrodesiac, .Paak watched from the stage as chicks furiously cooked grits and twisted spliffs, and again the voluminous females in the building made their thirst and appreciations known. As the new jack smooth criminal showed love to Marvin Gaye and Bloodstone whilst thieving more hearts then he could ever fit in his stick bag, the show entered the home stretch with the atomic bomb that was Hi-Tek-helmed banger “Come Down”.
Vocalist (and opening act) Taylor Parx joined the Free Nationals to lend a hand on Oxnard lead single “Tints”. The boys-plus-Taylor cut K-Dot‘s verse and instead just leaned back with a vibe thanks to the colorful Parx and .Paak’s ability to connect with just about any kind of artist. The performance was a joyride down the 101 highway, wind in their hair, just a fun and funky jam to close out the main set in just under an hour. The band took a quick bow and retired for a few moments while the capacity crowd howled for an encore.
[Video: Instagram user @cali_fabricated]
The full band returned for the elastic space-cowboy bounce of Pomo’s “Am I Wrong” (Malibu). “Am I wrong to assume, if she can’t dance, then she can’t ooh?” It was a funkadelic dance party in the Masonic as the bass rode out like an ancient mating call. .Paak took a quick and quirky drum solo before dropping into Kaytranada’s filthy housequake “Lite Weight”, which mined every last ounce of sexiness in the building in a torrid, merciless four-on-the-floor freakout that saw copious amounts of rump-shaking permeate the facility. But there was one more order of business: the proverbial elephant in the room, whose name was Larry.
For the final time this evening, .Paak hopped back on the towering drum riser and assumed his position at the kit, while asking the engrossed massive if we had any love for his late friend Mac Miller. My heart froze and the hairs on my body stood at attention while a giant photograph of a beaming dynamic duo was projected out over the sea of people, some of us visibly overcome. Anderson .Paak could have understandably taken one more song to bask in the glow of his own shooting star, but chose an emotional sendoff for his man Malcolm to close down the inaugural party at Andy’s Beach Club. The Free Nationals led .Paak into the smooth-as-butta funk of “DANG!” from Mac’s 2016 LP The Divine Feminine, and one couldn’t help but hang onto .Paak’s chorus for dear life.
I can’t keep on losing you
Gone too soon
Wait, we was just hangin’
I guess I need to hold onto, dang
The people that know me best
The key that I won’t forget, too soon
I can’t keep on losing you
Mac Miller’s nonchalant flow was piped in through the speakers and, in tandem with his brilliant smile gleaming atop the entire theater, it was almost as if we were visited by the dearly departed emcee—if only for a couple of verses and a hook. The light, fun frolic inherent in this breezy jam was somewhat overshadowed by a heaviness, the solemn reminder that half of this brotherhood is no longer here in the flesh. I held out hope that the boys would segue into “Cheers”, the emotional centerpiece of Oxnard that reveals an otherworldly tribute to .Paak’s fallen friend. It is the ultimate song of respect, admiration, grief, and memorium. But after further review, I came to a realization that, should they begin “Cheers”, there was simply no way in hell that I could have controlled my sobbing. How could I expect Anderson .Paak to get up there and perform this stirring ode when he obviously is still reeling from the tragic loss. “DANG!”,, along with seventy-ish minutes of all-killer-no-filler, was more than enough to satiate this superfan. So instead of wishing for anything further, we danced the short remainder of the night away in total gratitude and poured yet another one out for Larry Lovestein.
[Photo: Upful LIFE]
The performance was a short one, but not by .Paak standards, as most of his live sets hover around an hour and change. That said, the whole show was just over seventy minutes long, and felt like a bolt of lightning. In an instant, it was over. The shell-shocked Masonic massive began to file out of the venue while enormous lines snaked away from the merch tables and just about every overheard conversation was singing the praises of the man they used to call Breezy Lovejoy. Somehow, thanks to Maurice Brown, I found myself in the backstage bowels of this archaic Bay Area institution, hanging out in the hallway by the green rooms. Before long, members of the Free Nationals and then the prodigal son himself appeared, Cheeky Andy cheesin’ hard with a magnum of Moet in hand. My man popped that bottle with hella swag—2003 Hov woulda brushed his damn shoulder off. Amazingly, here I was, present in this indescribable moment, as this iconic artist—who doubles as a personal hero—offered a post-sold-out-tour-opener champagne salud: to his band, his crew, his team, and to life. What luck I had… to be here, now.
Before I knew it, just about everybody else seemed to briefly disappear, and for a few seconds, it was pretty much just me and .Paak standing across from one another in this backstage hallway. People were milling about nearby, but he seemed to be a little bit lost in his own thoughts for a moment. Maybe he was appreciating his hard-earned success, or maybe reliving a little bit of onstage magic from just earlier. Alas, I had a window to approach him and give thanks, and I really wanted to ask him to pardon my interruption and just tell him this:
- Thank you… for not being afraid to smile. The world needs more like yours.
- Thank you… for taking the draconian rulebooks for emcees, R&B singers, drummers and genre-producers and completely setting them ablaze.
- Thank you… for continuing to shine a light on the dearly departed Mac Miller. I can, in fact, feel his spirit alive within your songs, your swag, and your smile. Rest, Easy Mac.
- Thank you… for making timeless, personal art that brings people together. You wear your heart on your sleeve, and your music transmits to all walks of life. I KNOW you’re young, Black, gifted, and nothing short of AMAZING. Take a motherf*cking bow!
- Thank you… for coming to the Bay Area for NYE 2017, for that concert was my very first date with my partner (and now-fiance). Twenty-six months later, your rhythms and isms are the heartbeat soundtrack to our eternal dance.
- Thank you… for sharing your life-journey in song, with all of us. For showing the world that from poor choices, situations beyond our control, personal trauma, heartache and pain… can come an epic narrative of stoic resilience, euphoric inspiration, and triumphant rebirth. Because as a convicted felon who has struggled with substances, your story and your glory give me life, and both have propelled me toward higher heights then I’d ever dreamt possible. “But what don’t kill me is… MOTIVATION.”
I had waited many, many moons for the opportunity to tell Anderson .Paak all of these thoughts and so much more. I may have even practiced in the mirror a time or two, though I never imagined I’d actually have the chance. But when the situation presented itself, just minutes after such a highly-anticipated, emotionally-enthralling concert experience, I kind of just froze up. I was partially star struck, but wanted to respect this man’s personal space, as he gives us so much from the stage and the studio alike.
But I needed a minute, just gimme a minute.
So, akin to a busy drum-fill that doesn’t really belong in a song, I let all of that stuff just fly by… way too many notes anyway, right? In lieu of Stanning-out on dude at his own green room door, instead I just played the wall, didn’t ask for a picture or even really say much of anything at all, adjusted the tilt of my Kangol, offered a knowing glance, then a wide grin, and finally a nod and I’m out. Then I took one more deep draw off that tasty spliff, sent it back to big homie Mo Betta, and stepped into the San Francisco night… Goddamn GLOWED UP.