What it was like being part of Dave Chappelle’s star-studded July 4th weekend celebration in Yellow Springs

A couple weeks ago, I shared my experience going to see Dave Chappelle & Friends: A Talk with Punchlines, which has become an ongoing series of pop-up comedy events Chappelle has been hosting since June 6th.

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When tickets went on sale for Saturday, July 4, I noticed a $50 increase in price (per pair), but didn’t hesitate to buy them. Stumbling across these tickets before they were snapped up was sheer luck, and worth every penny. Chappelle also sold tickets for a similar show for Friday, July 3, too. Tickets for both events were available on Ticketmaster, and sold out within minutes.

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While attending this show on Saturday, I noticed a lot of changes since the first show I attended back on June 12th. Right off the bat, the parking situation had changed to allow more cars to be parked. Clearly this was going to be a bigger show. According to Chappelle’s on-stage accounts, the first show on June 6 only had 60 people in attendance, and the events held on July 3 and 4 held 400.

Getting into the event was the same routine, which started with getting our temperature checked and sanitizing our hands. The complimentary face masks given to ticket buyers were upgraded from a simple cotton mask to the type with a pocket for a N-95 filter, which was included.

It wasn’t until I officially was admitted, and walked through the outer ring of trees and into the Wirrig Pavilion lawn, that I realized there was a massive production upgrade. Previously the pavilion itself was used as the stage. This time there was a full stage set up in front of the pavilion, with light rigs, sound booths, and lots of instruments set up. It looked like this was going to be much more than a comedy show.

There were other updates that had been made, including the introduction of merchandise. Souvenir “CouRAGE” T-shirts with “Yellow Springs 2020” on the sleeve were available for purchase. There was also a nice quality, reusable rain poncho with Chappelle’s logo on the front. I opted for the rain poncho since I have far too many T-shirts already. That turned out to be a wise decision.

The event itself started an hour earlier than previous events. While the crowd filled in, DJ Trauma provided the pre-show soundtrack. At 8 p.m., Chappelle kicked off what he described as a historic show, delivering an extremely funny set, which included commentary on the holiday and its significance this year.

"What should we get America for its birthday?" he pondered aloud. Chappelle also shared his tradition of going to Gaunt Park in Yellow Springs on July 4th, with touching history about Wheeling Gaunt, a former slave who bought his freedom and left a legacy in the village. On a lighter note, Chappelle was amused at the size and scope of his own party. "I'm like the Great Gatsby out here," he said.

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He proceeded to welcome fellow comedians to the stage, starting with Michelle Wolf, a staple at these events. She has been staying in Chappelle's guest house since the shutdown started in March, and joked about her new life in Yellow Springs. She was absolutely amazed that it was still daylight during her set. "Just be on Central time!" she exclaimed.

One truly unexpected thing happened during Wolf’s set: it began to rain. Not a downpour by any means, but enough to be noticeable. That poncho came in handy! Chappelle seemed as surprised by the weather as anyone.

The event continued with comedy sets from Cipha Sounds, Mo Amer, Donnell Rawlings, and Tiffany Haddish, who gushed about how grateful she was to be able to have the opportunity to do stand-up again. As host, Chappelle did mini sets in-between each guest performer, often interacting with members of the audience. He was clearly in his element and having a great time.

Despite how funny everyone was, the rain grew steadier and subdued the crowd a bit. It's already a weird experience watching comedy with a face mask on and without drinking. Alcohol has not been sold to general admission attendees at these events. The sober and now damp crowd was in for a big shakeup.

At 10 p.m., a truly impressive fireworks display fired up, while the iconic hip-hop artist Questlove took over the stage with a J. Dilla DJ set. Above the treeline, the fireworks rivaling anything I've seen done by a city for July 4th. They went on for some time and then abruptly ended. (No finale? Seemed odd.) Chappelle jumped on stage to see if we enjoyed the display, decided he wasn't done yet, then the explosives continued to color the night sky for another long period until a brilliant finale signaled the end.

Credit: Matt Licari

Credit: Matt Licari

During the fireworks, I stretched my legs and walked over to where the fireworks were being launched, in the field across from where we parked. Several yards down, I saw a shiny red fire truck with a crew of firefighters leaning against the truck, watching the display in awe. It was felt so all-American to be out there in a cornfield, watching fireworks with these local heroes on the Fourth of July. They also made me think back to Chappelle’s theme for these events: courage.

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Once the fireworks ended, miraculously the rain ceased as well, and the live music started. First up was Issa Ali, a hip-hop artist from Dayton who grew up in Yellow Springs. He performed a short set accompanied by another local artist, DJ Fatty Lumpkin. Chappelle was thrilled to have "one of our own" kick things off. "Be proud," he told the audience.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

"It was truly a dream come true to share the stage with legends I grew up listening to,” Ali told us. “I’m a kid from a small town with a big dream. I’m so thankful for Dave. Only he could bring all of these legends together for this beautiful and safe event in the midst of a world crisis. I got to be a part of history."

Ali was followed by a trio of very talented rappers: Talib KweliMonie Love and Common. All performed individually, with periods where they were trading rhymes, including with Chappelle himself. Jon Hamm, renowned for his role as Don Draper in the television show "Mad Men", was seen on the side of the stage enjoying the set with his girlfriend and fellow Mad Men alum Anna Osceola. Lamorne Morris from "New Girl" was also in attendance.

At the end of their set, Tiffany Haddish announced that "she needs 10 more minutes" so Chappelle took the stage with Michael Che, from Saturday Night Live. Unclear who "she" was, I was glad that "she" was taking a little longer to get ready. The banter between Chappelle and Che, with an impromptu cameo by Hamm for "one minute of white commentary," turned out to be the funniest part of the night.

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"She" turned out to be none other than Erykah Badu, hip-hop / R&B artist, and one of my personal favorites. I was delighted! She came out with a Linda Perry style boho hat and a red jump suit with white fringe. Over the course of her set, which was the longest of the night, she left it all on the floor, from her accessories to the music itself. Her vocal range and vulnerability were both equally impressive.

Credit: Picasa

Credit: Picasa

Common, which Badu described as “her first love,” joined her on stage for a song. She later advised the crowd to “follow your heart, even if it’s reckless.”

By the end of Badu's set, everyone was on stage in what turned into a super jam. French harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet made a guest appearance, which delighted Chappelle. Dave also seemed to particularly enjoy singing "I'll Take You There" with Badu and crew. Tiffany Haddish, channelling Tina Turner, closed the night with a passionate performance of "Proud Mary," which served as the crescendo to the epic evening.

During the performance, I wondered how all these celebrities could be packed on stage together, but I later learned that all artists performing were tested for COVID-19 prior to the weekend’s performances.

It was also reported that during Friday’s performance Chappelle covered Radiohead’s “Creep,” Badu sang Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” while Hamm belted out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” (and there is a rare video clip to prove it).

The superstar covers wrapped up the nearly six-hour event. With a full moon rising, and full hearts, we collectively found our way back to our cars and back to our semi-quarantine kind of lives. It was such a lovely escape that even now as I write this, it seems like a dream. Others who attended shared similar feelings.

“It was amazing! I don’t need anything else from this summer 2020,” Allison Jordan of Dayton shared with us. “Best night ever!”

Eman Jones, a local hip-hop artist I recently wrote about was unexpectedly seated behind me during the show. “The music and comedy both brought enjoyment but also a conscious presence of peace,” he shared. “It makes my hometown feel like a special place.”

“I am really thankful to have Dave Chappelle as a part of our community,” Zach Zugelder of Dayton told us. “In this lost summer where there are no concerts or festivals, I am really thankful that he is willing to bring this experience to our community in a safe and fun way.”

When I thought back to Dave’s original question, “what can we give America for it’s birthday?” This year, maybe a diverse group of artists and people congregating in a cornfield and creating a magical moment of unity amidst a pandemic and nationwide protests, is exactly the gift it needs.

PS... If you missed it, don’t worry, I saw multiple film crews on site, so I hope this “gift” will be shared with the public sometime in the future. And I have no doubt Chappelle is not done with this summer yet.

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