Pharrell Turns the Apollo Into 'American Bandstand'

The "Happy" singer gives Harlem a career-spanning, Spike Lee-directed performance in New York

Pharrell performs apollo Theatre New York City
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for American Express
Pharrell performs at the Apollo Theatre in New York City.
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"I can't believe I get to sing my songs in Harlem," Pharrell Williams graciously exclaimed early on in last night’s performance at the Apollo Theater, and whether he was hyperbolizing or not, the statement took on extra gravitas in the context of the theater’s hallowed halls.

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Surrounded by an array of meticulously styled multicultural dancers, Pharrell put on a show worthy of the venue, performing everything from the sparse yet opulent Neptunes tracks that defined the early aughts to the Girl and Daft Punk hits that have returned him to pop music's center. While the throwback jams like "Hot in Herre" and "Hollaback Girl" provided a sonic context for that recent success, his choice to perform "Frontin’” and "Beautiful” side-by-side with selections from Girl like "Marilyn Monroe” and "Hunter” drove home the point that now as ever, Pharrell lives and breathes for the meet-cute.

With a livestream directed, fittingly, by Spike Lee, black cinema's great auteur (She's Gotta Have It’s bike-riding, nerdy-yet-sexy, funny hat-wearing Mars Blackmon is sort of a cultural forefather to Skateboard P) Pharrell sang to both the audience and roving cameras, but the Apollo audience never felt alienated, many in the crowd choosing to jump out and shake a tailfeather in the aisles. Whether intentional or not, this gave the show an eerie American Bandstand quality – something redoubled by the singer's endearing self-censoring.

Pharrell's dancers, meanwhile, wore retro high-waisted tights, pleated skirts and colorful sweaters. Though gamine and beautiful, they also carried an everyday charm, recalling the girls you might spot shopping at Forever 21 or Strawberry or strolling down 125th Street on a lazy Saturday. This was a fitting look because Girl is P's most egalitarian album, one filled songs about everyday people finding themselves mirrored in one another then going out to perform a mating ritual under a disco ball.

Midway through the set, the Apollo shook to its neo-classical moorings when Busta Rhymes popped by to rap over the crispy, belching bass of 2002’s "Pass the Courvoisier," but the emotional peak of the evening came when Pharrell wrapped his falsetto around the aforementioned "Beautiful." All evening, his band's tight rhythm section swimmingly mimicked the Neptunes' mechanized beats, but the undeniable vitality of the Snoop Dogg hit gave them a chance to to really show off. The following rundown of "Blurred Lines,” which even featured the ever-dapper T.I., "Get Lucky” and "Happy” seemed somewhat restrained in comparison. 

Everyone knew that the last of these recent hits would eventually arrive, but at the end of the night when it finally did, the song still seemed to take people by surprise. In a twist of irony, the crowd might have been having too much fun to focus on the experience of "Happy.”

And for those that care, hat was hat. It was green.

Set List:

"Lose Yourself to Dance"
"Come Get It Bae"
"Frontin'"
"Hunter"
"Marilyn Monroe"
"Hot In Herre"
"Give It to Me"
"Pass The Courvoisier"
"Lapdance"
"She Wants to Move"
"Beautiful"
"Drop It Like It's Hot"
"Lost Queen"
"Know Who You Are"
"Hollaback Girl"
"Blurred Lines"
"Get Lucky"
"Happy"

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