Following Dave Chappelle’s grand entry to his headlining set at Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre on Wednesday he started talking about Hartford, Conn. It’s where the embattled comedian walked off stage because of heckling a few jokes into his stand-up on the same tour in late August. And bringing up the Hartford “meltdown,” the crowd, the aftermath and the media coverage, he seemed to be testing his Colorado audience early. But the fans at Fiddler’s Green cheered him on, they laughed at his North Korea bit and they urged, practically begged him, to keep going. So, Chappelle did, seeming to sense the willingness of the crowd to obey, and he tested further. He teased about heckling, about meltdowns and finally he said it, the elephant in the room. Chappelle told the audience that he knew they wanted to see him fail — like fans at Siegfried & Roy who wouldn’t mind seeing the tiger attack.
No one in the Denver audience bit — in fact, they laughed it off. And once he got the uncomfortableness out of the way, his set was for the most part smooth. Chappelle casually chain-smoked, ad-libbed a few jokes and had the crowd howling about Lil Wayne and Paula Dean. Things got tense once again when he mentioned his old material, and the crowd jumped at the chance to yell, “Rick James.” He quickly stifled the excitable audience by telling them he hated it when people brought up his old material. This is the new Chappelle, a collected time bomb, a little defeated and whip-smart.
Chappelle’s set marked a hilarious, though uncomfortable, end to what was overall a hilarious, though uncomfortable, festival. Signs stuck to nearly every vacant wall and the back of every-other chair threatened fans not to use their cell phones in any way. What seemed like a courteous reminder turned into an anti-cell regime as fans started getting removed from the audience — one woman two rows up was escorted out in tears. At one point during Chappelle’s set he highlighted a woman in the audience who couldn’t stop laughing. As he poked fun at the woman, the cell phone-seeking security guards surrounded her and nearly removed her until Chappelle pointed out the comedic irony of removing someone for laughing too much at a comedy festival.
Ahead of Chappelle, Flight of the Conchords brought one of the few stress free sets of the evening. They’re at their funniest when bantering between songs, but the duo shows its real talent is in its ability to recreate a wide spectrum of artists and genres. FOTC played “Inner City Pressure,” “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)” and a hip-hop medley of “Hurt Feelings” and “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros.” Hearing the the duo live especially, it makes sense that they’re a comedy group signed to Sub Pop — like the hipster version of Lonely Island. In particular Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement’s voices — moving from imitating women, to minstrels, to falsettos, to rappers, to children — were versatile and impressive.
Before an intermission, Hannibal Buress gave a strong performance, killing it with 2 Chainz jokes and a choreographed rap sequence at the end. Unfortunately, scattered showers dampened the sets of Denver’s Josh Blue — who managed to keep the audience happy during the brief downpour — and Greer Barnes. Longmont’s Kristen Schaal, the only female comic on the bill, opened the main stage with some kind words for flood victims in her home town. Some of her best material came from the Colorado-focused jokes, making fun of the town of Mead and laughing about starting a business drying out pets in Longmont.
Even before Schaal took the stage — about two hours after the venue opened — the audience had already filled up much of the amphitheater seating, even though the second stage was going. It seemed that there was a bit of confusion among the audience of where to go and when. Even though the anti-cell phone signs were clearly stated, a schedule of performers and stages was hard to come by.
Despite the threat of bad weather and the date changed to the middle of the work week, Fiddler’s Green filled up nicely and spirits were high despite the veins of tension — rain, phones, Chappelle — running through the night.
Lisa Higginbotham is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.