2003 / Music

Concert Review: Roots’ Musical Journey Is Sometimes Thrilling, Bumpy

Hip-Hop Band Touring In Support Of New Album

MINNEAPOLIS — In the rap world, the Roots have proved to be a musically flexible unit. Onstage and on vinyl, the Philadelphia-based band is capable of taking listeners on a wide-ranging musical journey — cutting through hip-hop conventions, freely reinterpreting and incorporating the songs of others and uniquely fusing funk, jazz and soul into their own music.

Photo: MCA Records

Photo: MCA Records

While the trail that they’ve traveled has had some thrilling moments, there have been a few bumps along the way. Their main problem, which they’ve demonstrated on all of their albums (including their latest, “Phrenology”), was glaringly apparent at Thursday night’s concert at First Avenue in Minneapolis: they don’t know how to pace a set.

Think of the Roots as an otherwise fantastic, manual transmission car that’s unfortunately missing a couple gears. When they’re in a groove — delicately delivering the jazzy beat that underpins “The Next Movement” or thrashing out to “Rock You,” their barely veiled rewrite of Queens’ “We Will Rock You” — the band can easily get a crowd moving, waving their hands in the air.

But when the group attempts to downshift, instead of running at a different speed, they stall. While their records suffer in part because hot jams are interrupted by dull spoken-word interludes or brief, light-hearted musical experiments that sound cursory, their live shows, as typified by Thursday’s two hour-plus show, frequently come off as disjointed because of the near-random appearance of guest performers and the very lengthy solo instrumental showcases.

The latter was problem because the group has now swollen to seven members and each instrumentalist was given a turn to solo. While each segment typically featured a comic twist — drummer Questlove and percussionist Knuckles engaging in an animated conversation, complete with hand gestures, as they faced off in a call-and-response percussion battle or the entire band playing air bass behind bassist Leonard Hubbard’s back as he was thumping the strings — many audience members responded by hitting the bar, talking with friends or heading to the bathrooms.

For most performers, a poorly paced set can be lethal. Once you’ve lost your audience’s interest, it’s difficult to win them back. Thankfully, Questlove is the band’s imposing taskmaster. With a swift swing of his drumstick on his snare drum or the thudding of the bass drum, he could re-energize the show by spurring on the rhythm or slow its progress. From behind his kit and the scenes, he led not only the group, but the audience on a rollercoaster ride that was filled with highs and some lows.

Leading the group out front was rapper Black Thought, whose lyrical flow is unflinching on record but can be even more fierce live. Dressed in a white long-sleeve T-shirt and a light brown cap, he commanded a wide berth on the cramped stage, sometimes stumbling backward as he spewed dozens of rhymes. Particularly on uptempo tracks like “Water” or “Thought @ Work,” Thought perfectly matched the music’s forcefulness, becoming more aggressive in his delivery. During “Water,” the crowd was so taken by the rapping and the body-shaking beats that they were dancing and clapping in rhythm.

Thought showed that he could sell all of the Roots’ material, sounding downright tender on the band’s super smooth single, “Break You Off” (with new guitarist Ben Kenney supplying backing vocals for the absent Musiq). He even sang a bit of Erykah Badu’s part on the winsome “You Got Me.”

He was at ease freestyling rhymes when the group wandered into a 10-minute jam or starting riffing on a dub rhythm. He also adeptly handled the lyrical duties when the band incorporated parts of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” Nelly’s “Hot In Herre,” and Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” into their material. (Keyboardist Kamal included the theme to the “Pink Panther” movies).

But it seemed that once a head of steam was developed, a change would dim the mood. The most surprising interruption came when the band left the stage more than an hour into the concert and Thought turned the mic over to guest Skillz, who rapped for about 20 minutes about his prowess as an MC, the cliches of gangsta rap and the corruption of the record industry, including a lyrical assault aimed at a certain hip-hop impresario from Bad Boy Entertainment.

When the Roots returned to the stage, the group laid down a pulsating beat as Skillz and Thought engaged in a friendly freestyle battle that quoted passages from Melle Mel’s “The Message” and Run DMC’s “King Of Rock.” As each rapper tried to outdo the other, each line brought smiles from the one looking on before the duel ended with both MCs embracing.

However, the guest who brought the house down was opener Cody ChesnuTT, who joined the group for a rendition of his song, “The Seed (2.0),” which the Roots reworked on “Phrenology.” While Questlove hammered the beat into shape with the thundercrack of his snare drum, Thought sounded like a fast-talking hustler rapping about musical integrity, but buried in the track’s sexy language. Strumming the chords that straddle the song’s glowing pop melody, ChestnuTT soulfully howled the song’s chorus and gave the Roots frontman his only real onstage competition of the evening.

ChestnuTT was equally impressive during his own set. Like his benefactors, the flow of ChestnutTT’s performance was continually interrupted when he took time to chastise the audience against smoking while he was singing or to proselytize about life and spirituality using homespun analogies.

“It ain’t about being perfect,” he said. “It’s about being in the moment.”

But it was when he kept it on musical terms that ChestnuTT showed he was more musical visionary rather than preacher. Followed the whole show by a cameraman, ChestnuTT directed his two sidemen as they played a handful of his two-minute songs that fuse elements of guitar pop, soul and funk with ChestnuTT’s raw but soulful vocals. Before being shooed offstage for running late, he even took a brief stab at “Look Good In Leather,” the video for which has been popping up on MTV2.

Performing “The Seed” together probably should have closed the concert, but it didn’t. Some of the songs were great, but we were well past the concert’s climax. If the Roots don’t wake up to this flaw and reassemble their set list, this problem will continue to sap the band’s considerable strengths.

Remainder Of The Roots’ Tour:

  • Feb. 14, St. Louis
  • Feb 15, Lawrence, Kan.
  • Feb. 16, Denver
  • Feb. 17, Salt Lake City
  • Feb. 19, Seattle
  • Feb. 20, Vancouver, B.C., Canada
  • Feb. 21, Portland, Ore.
  • Feb. 22, Eugene, Ore.
  • Feb. 23-24, San Francisco
  • Feb. 26, Anaheim, Calif.
  • Feb. 27-28, March 1, Los Angeles
  • March 2, San Diego, Calif.
  • March 3, Phoenix
  • March 5, El Paso, Texas
  • March 6, Albuquerque, N.M.
  • March 7, Dallas
  • March 8, Austin, Texas
  • March 9, Houston
  • March 10, New Orleans
  • March 12, Atlanta
  • March 14, New York
  • March 15, Philadelphia

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2003 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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