The hip-hop group The Roots began their careers playing on a sidewalk just off South Street in Philadelphia in the early-90s.
Tonight, The Roots played some thirteen blocks – and worlds away – at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the posh home of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra. The night was a fund raiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina, but it was also a coronation, of sorts, marking The Roots as the ‘official house band of Philadelphia.’
Opening the show were Shawn Hewitt And The National Strike, Deerhoof, and rising New York rockers TV On The Radio. TV On The Radio surprised me as they possessed a great energy not obviously apparent on their debut album. In fact, often singer Tunde Adebimpe literally vibrated across the stage to the music in a rather fascinating mini-pogo-mode. Their performance was more than enough to make me give their CD a second chance.
The main event started off with a traditional New Orleans’ jazz procession through the audience consisting of The Roots, as well as New Orleans’ own TBC Brass Band, or at least by the five members that were able to regroup in time for the show. TBC were befriended by The Roots prior to the hurricane and then became the obvious choice to support them for this show.
At heart, The Roots are really a jazz band who love soul and happen to be fronted by a rapper, and one that embraces strong rock influences, all at once. Their ability to seamlessly cross over all of these genres live is an amazing feat. For example, tonight The Roots closed out with an extended medley of covers, which included everything from LL Cool J’s classic rap-ballad, I Need Love, Ray Charles‘ What’d I Say, and Black Sabbath‘s Iron Man, and so on. Seeing The Roots and their rambunctious audience in this elegant venue was unlike anything I have ever seen, actually, the closest thing being Elton John‘s Pinball Wizard scene from the film Tommy. And as wondrous as this stretch was, it wasn’t even the highlight of the show.
Three-quarters into the two-plus hour performance, Philly native and queen of neo-soul Jill Scott appeared to wild applause. Scott joined the band for a very different version of their hit collaboration, the Grammy-winning soul-rap hybrid, You Really Got Me (penned by Scott but originally sung by Erykah Badu). This version centered around Scott and her absurdly strong voice, which was right at home in the world-class venue. Scott stayed for one more song, a new, mournful ballad referring to the country she “wants” to love, and its response to the hurricane disaster, or lack thereof.
The Roots and their friends closed the show as they started, with a procession back through the audience. Following them into the grand lobby of the Kimmell Center, the crowd reconvened. Eventually the brass portion of the band headed out towards Broad Street, playing the entire time. At another location, two turntables and a microphone had awaited ?uestlove, who jumped in as DJ ?uestlove. He had another large crowd dancing to a fusion of early blues and modern funk. And the show never did seem to end and almost no one left.
The bottom line is that if you enjoy hip-hop, or jazz, or soul, or rock – or, now, New Orleans’ brass, this is the band to see live.