As I stood before the stage, there was an unmistakable sense of tremendous energy and anticipation that emanated not only from the audience, but from the equipment itself. Every changing of the lights and every microphone check produced a great stir from the crowd in hopes of a quick glimpse of the band before they appeared. Finally, as the unmistakable sound of a tuba played by “Tuba Gooding Jr.” blared from offstage, and the volcano-shaped hair of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson sauntered onstage, the truth was out and reality hit: The Roots had arrived.
The Roots, a six-man group with 10 albums to date, play music that is generally labeled as a jazzy, eclectic style of hip-hop, but Sunday’s Spring Fling performance proved they could offer more than the limitations of standard hip-hop music. Rather, The Roots seemed to transcend the genre so that even the casual music fan could appreciate the artistry of the live band. Sure, lead vocalist Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter’s philosophical, complex rhymes reign supreme within the rap world, and his tight delivery and precise wizardry of words offered no contradiction to that sentiment, but it wouldn’t do The Roots’ performance justice to tag it as merely hip-hop.
Guitarist Kirk “Captain Kirk” Douglas’ solo, for instance, could have been taken straight out of a rock concert, and the exchange between Questlove and fellow drummer Frank “Knuckles” Walker could have been the feature of a premier jazz performance. The versatility the band displayed was somewhat astounding as they ventured off into snippets of classics such as “Jungle Boogie” by Kool & the Gang and “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. Their performance was truly music for the music lover.
Indeed, perhaps the phrase that best describes The Roots is “true performers.” There was no script, no designated sequence of events that they adhered to; there was only the band, their instruments and the energy of the crowd – and the music flowed all night long. The energy itself was contagious for both the audience and the musicians, and they seemed to feed off each other for inspiration. Tuba Gooding Jr. pranced along the stage with an expression of pure enjoyment stamped on his face while Captain Kirk rocked wildly, all to an uproarious crowd response. The tempo matched the sometimes frenzied feel of the show, with the music speeding up, slowing down, softening and then growing louder again. It shifted and moved and switched styles in every one of the masterful and dexterous hands of each band member. It was apparent that The Roots loved the music for the pure sake of the music, just as they loved performing for the sake of the live performance.
The performers’ passion inspired the kind of music that speaks to the body, demanding that it loosen up and move to the rhythm and beat. When The Roots played the hit single “You Got Me,” and Captain Kirk sang the hook, there were few people who were not fully immersed in the slow, melancholy rhythm of the song. The Roots made it feel as if they were playing for the audience and for the audience alone; they didn’t hold onto the distant feel of mass-media-intended music coming from a random recording studio.
This free expression of energy took form in the kind of improvisational style highlighted throughout the night, with each original recording merely a basis on which to expand and freestyle until it became something entirely new and fresh altogether. Each individual song was extended and lengthened, with renditions of “Star” and “The Seed” standing out as particularly exceptional – their smooth beats and sublime lyrics were powerful enough to make someone rethink their life plans. There was almost never a complete halt of music, and transitions between songs gave way to exceptional and mesmerizing solos from each band member. Kamal Gray’s feature on the keyboard and bass guitarist Owen Biddle produced definite wows from the audience.
There was definitely room for the possibility that The Roots’ concert would not live up to their lofty reputations as commercially successful and critically acclaimed artists. After their performance, however, it would suffice to say that, in fact, their talents exceeded what anyone could have hoped for. The Roots certainly lived up to expectations and demonstrated why they are known as the “Legendary Roots Crew.”