Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover’s Pharos festival — the emperor’s new clothes for our times.

For the very first episode of Crave!, back in June 2015, Simon and I reviewed Johnny Marr’s show at the Powerstation in Auckland. A fine show, but the highlight came during the encore, when Neil Finn joined Marr on stage for There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.

And that is the very reason why I don’t like to leave before the end of a concert. I don’t want to miss a crucial detail in my review; I don’t want to be the reviewer who leaves early, writes that last night’s show was mediocre and unremarkable, and then be the one reviewer who fails to mention that the encore was when Elvis is finally revealed still to be alive and about to stage a comeback.

So no, I don’t like to leave early. But that’s exactly what I did at Pharos, the Donald Glover vehicle that’s in Auckland this weekend. It’s a festival, apparently; at least that’s how it’s being promoted. And it’s surrounded by the most appallingly overweening pretension — just take a look at the screenshots from the app that accompanies the shows. Pharos is, apparently, a “holy place,” a “shared vibration,” a “gathering of the five intuitive of the human experience.” It’s also an enormous bag of toss. So, along with Debbie, Crave!’s Intrepid Guest Reviewer, I drove to Tāpapakanga Regional Park, an hour out of Auckland on the Firth of Thames, on a cool Friday night. Gates opened, the app told us, at 6pm; the show was due to start at 9. But then, the app also said that the support acts — Frank Booker, Ill Baz, Tierra Whack — would start performing at 5. So presumably Glover would be coming on stage at 9. All was not clear; I decided to follow the app’s advice and “trust the Great Algorithm.”

Whack was singing over pre-recorded music on a small stage with bass speakers loud enough to be physically distressing as we entered the small-ish field that was the festival ground. There were maybe half a dozen food trucks, the same ones you see at most turnouts like this in Auckland, around the field, a bar tent, and a merch stall that was doing anaemic business at best. And there was a queue. A very long queue it was, a queue to get into the field surrounding the dome tent where Glover would be playing. So we joined the queue, which started by snaking back and forth round barriers, Disneylandishly, and then stretched out across the field. We stood for an hour and more waiting to get to the front of the queue, there to be handed a Yondr bag, a neoprene pouch with a magnetic seal in which we were required to sequester our phones for the duration. We’ll be charitable and allow that this was simply to maintain the pretence and mystique; the more cynical would suggest that it was to stop us documenting just how poor the show was about to become.

Once we passed the phone-security checkpoint, we were barked to a pathway by officious security guards and sent to one of the doors to the tent. At this point it was about 10pm, and there were still several hundred people queuing behind us. I asked a security woman what time Glover would be on stage; “Oh, I think he’s on already,” she replied. But when we were finally admitted, through airlock-style double doors — to maintain air pressure and keep the tent inflated, apparently — there was just a lightshow going on, hexagons projected on the ceiling of the dome. I asked a bloke with an AAA laminate what time the show was due to start. Ten, he said. That’s not happening, then, I replied, it’s ten past already. Oh, they’re having technical problems, he told me.

Twenty minutes later, Glover — Childish Gambino he’s calling himself right now, like he’s a latter-day Ziggy Stardust — arrived on stage. Now, I say “stage;” it was a slightly, very slightly, raised platform. Regular podcast listeners will remember Debbie commenting in her review of Taylor Swift’s concert that she was a tad disappointed that Swift’s stage was so high that Debbie could only see her from mid-shin upward. But there was a point to that — the entire of Mount Smart Stadium could see her. I saw glimpses of Glover. And I’m 6’3″ tall. Anyone more than a couple of people back from the stage would struggle to see anything on the stage. What I could see was that the stage was in the middle of the dome. Now, playing in the round is an interesting idea — he’s not the first to do it; everyone from Def Leppard to the Cowboy Junkies have made it work — but it does call for just a smidgeon of thought being given to stage design. Putting a dirty great lighting rig in the middle of the stage, then, is not your smartest move, nor is standing a stack of speakers at each corner of the stage.

The Dome tent, Pharos

The Dome tent, Pharos

So with little to see on the stage — the computer-animated landscapes projected onto the ceiling provided a little visual interest and a distraction from trying to see between all the people between me and the band — the music had to carry the evening. The music signally failed to do any such thing. Glover is a very talented comic actor; Community was very, very much the weaker for his leaving, Abed with Troy a punchline in need of a setup. But he’s not, at least not yet, the important musical presence he’s set himself up to be. His voice — when we could hear it; if the stage designer needed a talking to, then the sound engineers needed firing on the spot, so bad was the mix, far too loud for comfort, even with ear protectors deep, deep in ears, Glover’s voice frequently indistinct above the everything-louder-than-everything-else noise — lacks individuality, sounding at times little better than a second-rate Prince tribute act rehearsing Michael Jackson covers. And his music, again, has little to recommend it particularly; it’s agreeably funky at times, but it’s unremarkable, lacking anything really resembling a signature style. It’s really not bad; it’s also really not that terribly special, either.

So with unpleasantly loud sound, nothing to see on stage, and, no-cigarettes warnings in the Pharos app notwithstanding, quite heroic quantities of the skunkiest weed being smoked throughout the audience, we left. We’d stuck it out for about forty-five minutes, but that really was more than we wanted. Others seemed to be enjoying themselves, but I did get the feeling that they were enjoying the fact that they were there, that they were present at a Thing, that they were among others who could see them enjoying themselves. I didn’t buy into the hype of Pharos, and so I left with no more idea of the answers to the questions the app asked — who are we, where are we from, why are we here? — than when I had arrived; I especially wondered about the third question.

And that, then, was the biggest problem of Pharos. Yes, the stage and sound were very, very badly constructed. And yes, the organisation of the queue, and the resultant very late start, bordered on fiasco. But it was the pretension, the pomposity, the disappear-up-your-own-arsehole levels of toss that surrounded the whole thing that really bothered me. “Enjoy yourself,” the app told us. “No irony,” it said, but mercifully sarcasm, this being New Zealand, was allowed. “Communication is vital so please avoid small talk,” we were told, with, obviously, no trace of irony and no other suggestions of how to pass an hour in a queue. “Do not disturb anyone’s vibration,” we were reminded, but, seriously, what a colossal pile of self-indulgent bollocks this was to surround what turned out to be an entirely mediocre and unremarkable concert.

“Time is the only freedom,” the Pharos app tells us. No, Donald, it’s not. Walking out of your concert was the only freedom I needed.

Were you at Pharos? Is Steve being unduly harsh, or was this really a pile of self-indulgent twaddle? Let us know in the comments below.

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