Dave Chappelle rouses Camden and roasts Hartford at the Oddball Festival

Along with Flight of the Conchords, John Mulaney, Kristen Schaal and others, Chappelle made one more city on the Oddball schedule grateful for his return.

Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle Courtesy Live Nation

With geese honking overhead, the Delaware River gleaming, cars puttering across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in the distance, it could not have been a lovelier day to go outside and hear dick jokes. Once we got past the fried foods, frozen drinks and $11 tallboys of Miller High Life at the Susquehanna Bank Center, and sat on a grassy hill near the second stage for Funny or Die’s massive Oddball Festival on Friday, a dick joke was indeed the first thing we heard. It would not be the last.

On the second stage, other than Steven Brody Stevens and his relentless “positive energy,” one performer grabbed our attention: Philly’s John McKeever, who explained that while he is not gay, he is “American straight gay guy”: “I don’t have sex with guys but my Internet search history is a little weird.” That’s the best we’ve heard it put.

After wandering to the huge stage, which held an impressive amount of its 25,000 capacity in seats and the lawn area surrounding them, we were regaled by a series of supporting players before the headliners—Flight of the Conchords and Dave Chappelle—emerged. Here are some highlights:

- Host Keith Robinson set the tone as well as could be expected in such a massive venue with people still taking their seats; hear his constant refrain—“Give it up, goddamn it!”—and it’s almost impossible not to respond.

- Kristen Schaal warmed the audience with jokes fans will have heard but really set them off with a Flashdance fantasia, in which she pranced about in leotard and tights to “Maniac” by Michael Sembello, like a little girl twirling in her bedroom alone (or, in this case, in the company of Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement, who doused her with water and followed her lead while in neon-green ’80s gear).

- “There’s five here,” said Daily Show Senior Latino Correspondent Al Madrigal after very few people responded to his query about which audience members were Mexican. “They’re up on the lawn, working.” Also, we realized that we’d watch his perfectly sculpted, expressive eyebrows do a set all on their own.

- John Mulaney, well, what can be said other than the guy is on fire? He had the audience immediately and only left them gaga by the end with a sequence debunking the old saw, “Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?” which he’s found the perfect pace for over the last few months. Also, he's got a new drag-queen bit—just like the title track on his recent New in Town—proving that Mulaney is captivated by drag queens.

- Though Jeff Ross had a tough act to follow, his M.O. at a big happening like this—“speed roasting” a series of audience members—played well. A New Jerseyan himself, it made sense when he picked out a schlubby-looking guy in the front row with a T-shirt and shorts, saying, “You’re the only guy in Jersey who doesn’t go to the gym, tan or do laundry.”

Flight of the Conchords emerged to rousing applause, packing their studied set full of little moments that sold their songs of seduction and misunderstanding. It was impossible to look away from the massive projection screens in order to catch the nuances of the New Zealanders’ expressions—e.g., the anguish in Bret McKenzie’s face while playing a forgotten paramour in FOTC staple "Jenny," the exaggerated swagger and sexy lip quiver during “Fucking on the Ceiling.”) Clement also hit the silly-stupid spot when he whipped out a flute during one song and mimed playing it while whistling into the mike instead.

If Oddball is a “festival for people who quit their TV shows,” as Clement put it, the most deference (and reverence) was provided to the long, lost Dave Chappelle, who made a big, theatrical entrance: His silhouette first projected against a scrim, which dropped dramatically to reveal the man smoking a cigarette in a tight, black leather jacket. “Welcome to the Dave Chappelle meltdown,” he announced.

The specter of Hartford—that is, a difficult set on August 29 that ended with Chappelle marking out his remaining time onstage, refusing to perform while getting booed—loomed throughout; it was never a question whether or not he’d win the hearts of Camden (he entered to a standing ovation): It’s as if the Hartford incident served as a kind of fuel, a bit of adversity to focus his frustrations. He took on the mayor for dissing him on TMZ, had “Fuck Hartford” T-shirts made and wished the city—presumably, the respectful fans who were also part of the audience that night—all kinds of hurt. In a levelheaded moment, he confessed the bottom line: The crowd was “drunk” and he had a “bad attitude.” “But,” he continued, “Controversy makes my machine work.”

Thankfully, there was much more in his long set than talk of failure in Connecticut. Bits we’d seen him work over the summer in Montreal—hiring Paula Deen as his personal chef because she’d cook and use slurs, Lil Wayne as a C.S.I. investigator invariably able to identify slicks of “pussy juice”—felt tighter. His easy way of slipping from topic to topic, the charming giggle he gives when he laughs at himself and his self-awareness…all thing his fans fondly remember kept them riveted and reined in.

Camden, what Chappelle announced was his “favorite city so far” on the tour, was the anti-Hartford: It was attentive, effusive and pampered Chappelle in a way that relaxed him; he even invited a woman onstage to give her a hug. Whether this was his way of making amends, or showing the crowd he could peacefully handle a bit of audience interaction, it didn't matter: Dave delivered and the crowd responded.

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)


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