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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Last Night: The Roots at Davies Symphony Hall

Posted By on Sun, May 31, 2009 at 1:00 PM

The Roots
Davies Symphony Hall
Better than:
Sitting still for an orchestra

Local music history was made last night as the Roots performed the first-ever hip-hop concert at Davies Symphony Hall as part of SFJAZZ's Spring season. The Philadelphia-bred, Grammy Award-winning group plays in your living room almost every day if you own a television set; they're the house band for the new Late Night With Jimmy Fallon program, which airs five nights a week on NBC. It's a hardcore commitment for the Roots, who have spent the last several years traveling the world, to stick in one spot so much. Some members, such as drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, even commute from Philly to Manhattan every weekday for the job. These factors plus an enthusiastic, sold-out audience ready to groove combined to make for one memorable show. 

A venue that can sometimes feel a bit too stiff unbuttoned its shirt to loosen up with the crowd. This started with the rap tunes that blared from speakers as people took their seats, a swathe of conscious tunes by Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Talib Kweli, Arrested Development, and others. All evening, the rhythms and bass sounded heavenly as they bounced around the superb acoustics of Davies.

SFJAZZ executive artistic director Randall Kline took the stage to introduce the group as well as his non-profit's mission, saying, "We support all types of music, from music that has influenced jazz to music influenced by jazz, and tonight is an example of that."

As Kline exited the stage and the lights dimmed, deep notes and beats emerged from the back left corner of the house. Led by the booms of a tuba player known as Tuba Gooding, Jr., the members of the Roots marched down our aisle beating on hand held percussion instruments. The ensuing set provided a career-spanning look at the Roots, including songs from early works as well as glimpses of what the band is preparing for its forthcoming album How I Got Over (the latter said to channel the optimistic state of the band as well as the nation). Consummate live performers they are, these works were merely a jumping off point, as arrangements were altered, extended, and remixed with favorites from other artists.

While drummer ?uestlove and MC Black Thought are the most well-known and recognizable members of the group, the other members more than held their own and impressed with their energy and talent, so if one didn't know much about them beforehand, they left with a really solid introduction. Tuba Gooding, Jr. and electric guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas in particular spent much of the performance connecting with the crowd and running around the stage like consummate rockers, which sure came in handy as the band altered "You Got Me" to include riffs and snippets from other songs, ranging from Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" to "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses, followed by Kool & the Gang's "Jungle Boogie." With these altered arrangements, the band made a statement that their works are and will be as timeless as that of these other artists. They even unveiled a song in tribute to Fela Kuti, the late artist who Black Thought referred to as a "revolutionary, visionary saxophonist, keyboardist, vocalist, whatever, he cut hair and DJ'd too."

The band was certainly captivating, but the audience was also a sight to behold. Even way up top, people swayed and shimmied, while a posse of air drummers formed in the seats behind the stage. They earnestly tried to match ?uestlove's rapidfire rhythms, and it was fun to watch them basically miss the mark every time.

As much as it has dominated the international landscape, hip-hop is generally still a few miles behind other genres in the realm of quality live performances, but not so with the Roots. The band honored the venue by giving it its all, and for being artists with enviable technical skill as well as natural charisma. Simply put, there's nobody more deserving than the Roots to have introduced Davies Symphony Hall to the art and soul of hip-hop.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: Lover of hip-hop as well as classical.
Random detail: The ushers wore tuxedos, and much of the audience wore jeans.
By the way: ?uestlove later hosted a "W Night" at club 330 Ritch, DJing 90 minutes of Wu-Tang Clan and 90 minutes of (Stevie) Wonder.

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Tamara Palmer


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