Published Jun 08, 2014As a sure bet for the type of live experience that just leaves you smiling and satisfied hours after the final note, you'd be hard pressed to match the Roots and what they bring to the stage so consistently, year after year — or night after night in their current day gig as Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show house band. The group is simply in a category of their own, a crew of dynamic musicians each with the chops, personality and background to carry the band's sound in so many different directions, fronted by one of the most skilled MCs to ever grip a microphone.
But with the creative demands of that still remarkably genius day job, it was a bit of a wonder going into the group's latest jaunt through town — the umpteenth time I've been lucky enough to see them through the years — just where they dig up the inspiration to continue to set it off on the road. The answer came about halfway through their set, after I spotted yet another bandmate in stitches from one of Black Thought's constant inside wise-cracks: It's fun! These guys, after all these years, are still having the time of their lives.
Guitarist Adrian X — a local industry superstar in his own right for his years in the trenches guiding and contributing to the music of Nelly, Drake, Kylie Minogue and others — handled opening duties, warming up the crowd with cuts from his new disc Soulgazer. Backed by his Philly Funk Sandwich bandmates, Adrian guided his singing electric guitar melodies through a series of spacious soundscapes that began in the vein of classic Sade and became increasingly crunchier as the set progressed. Undulating retro-futuristic synth lines swelled and receded beneath the bassist's meaty tones, as Adrian's classic rock sounds powered along to his set's high point, a molasses-thick rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" that allowed the guitarist to reach beyond song structure restrictions and unleash his searing solo skills.
With the table then properly set, the night's headliners slowly ambled on stage to the ominous opening of new track "The Devil", and then leaped headlong into the loose jam session format that has now long defined their live show approach. Songs from new album ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin slipped seamlessly into older fare before the familiar sounds of Kool & The Gang's "Jungle Boogie" began to finally loosen up the crowd. Questlove soon led fellow percussionist Frank Knuckles through a mini call-and-response session followed by a surprise appearance from the crew's former human beatbox, Scratch.
But despite their early hijinks, there was an unshakable feeling that the band was simply running through its paces, with Black Thought's half-rapped verses best defining a pervading nonchalantness about their performance. That initial grogginess finally began to crack, however, as the set transitioned into a stage of soul-soothing nostalgia with a string of songs from the near 20-year old record Do You Want More?. The group began to truly come alive with a jazzy "Mellow My Man" meets "Fantastic" by Slum Village amalgam.
From there, fans were treated to touches of vocoder-inflected Marvin Gaye, variety show sousaphone solos, slinky dub breakdowns and a jaw-dropping, marathon run-through of the Roots' trajectory-changing smash "You Got Me" that quite fittingly showcased a band operating on another plane. Black Thought's adopted southern flow and subsequent trap percussion reworking gave the classic a new modern sheen, before guitarist Kirk Douglas snatched the reins and took the song on an insane journey of murderous axe play complete with a taste of Guns N Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine" and a tireless voice and guitar solo pairing that was the stuff of true musical mastery.
From that point on, the Roots' own excitement became the star of the show, with members mounting Questlove's drum kit and running laps around the stage while Black Thought performed his own lyrical acrobatics on the mic in the set's scorching final moments. As for any doubt about why those men continue to go as hard as they do given the daily grind (and likely the tidy retirement fund) of their Tonight Show obligation, the genuine smiles and emotion the legendary crew shared on stage is the best reason you could possibly find.
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