With John Legend and The Roots having played a much larger show last night, it feels special being in a venue this size for two acts of this calibre. Both acknowledged that their first UK performances were here, Legend six years ago, The Roots 13 years ago.
Both acts are here on an interesting premise as well. Their recent collaboration, Wake Up!, compiled a series of old soul protest covers. With The Roots drummer manning the production desk, it was an album filled with itchy snare beats and hustling rhythms that sounded too sincere, too musical to compete with the bombastic nature of today’s soul charts comfortably.
But seeing Legend and The Roots live put a completely different spin on the album and showed it to be far tougher and gutsier than it seems on record. From the opening riff of Curtis Mayfield’s Hard Times, Cap’n Kirk Douglas’s guitar riffs are spiky and piercing and Owen Biddle wrestles handily his six-string bass. This feels more like a prog rock concert, yet the music is pure, fluid soul. It’s mind-blowing to see music being performed live with such precision .
Wake Up! Benefits from live performance immensely; whilst the album was a marvellous document, live the emotions really shake the floor. Bill Withers‘ I Can’t Write Left Handed spirals into a guitar solo that is frantic, furious and fantastic, whilst the band ascend and collapse into soulful chord progressions, accompanied by thee-part backing vocals. Their own composition, Shine, ends the set with a relentless rhythmic thrashing of optimism that could play on loop forever, Legend’s Nat King Cole-esque vocals being deployed with power.
Similarly Legend’s own compositions are toughened by The Roots musical restlessness. Green Light goes from Andre 3000 space funk into a rocksteady skiffle; it’s grittier and feels desperate as opposed to Legend’s chunky knit-jumper-and-leather-sofa-stroking original. Again the live outfit keep wonderful tabs on each other, watching for breaks and opportunities to extend tracks. As Legend closes Shine with a vocal interplay that sees him momentarily delve into a deep baritone, the whole band crack a smile at a front man probably learning to push his improvisational abilities.
Whilst the performance isn’t perfect, even its down sides are still happy. In Wake Up Everybody the absence of Melanie Fiona removes that Marvin Gaye and Tammy Wynette warmth that the album captured so lovingly. It’s a superb show but the resultant feeling is that soul is losing its musical creativity these days for sample-heavy push-button satisfaction. In digging up the past and presenting it with flare, the shortcomings of today were held to the spotlight. A performance like this makes you painfully aware that we need more intelligent soul bands. Both Legend and The Roots have always been testaments to that and their collaboration serves as a wakeup call indeed.