This looks almost nothing like the band I saw last night
TV tapings are weird. They’re not so much live shows as simulations of live shows, and even if you’re legitimately amped to be there, you can’t help but feel like an extra in someone else’s movie when people are telling you to applaud on cue. Before last night, I’d only ever been to one of these things: Jay-Z’s episode of VH1 Storytellers, which I’ve never written about at length because the VH1 people who let me in told me that they wanted me to sit on a review until the episode was about to air. At that show, Jay ran through about half of American Gangster with his touring band, telling stories about how these songs related to scenes from specific gangster movies, not scenes from his actual life. When he finished his set, he restarted it from the beginning and did the whole thing over again so the cameras could get some different angles. That night, I was totally happy to be there. It was a Jay-Z show, after all, and I was hearing most of these songs for the first time. It was only sort of boring in retrospect. The Roots, who taped an episode of VH1 Soul’s SoulStage last night, can’t coast on that sort of mysterious starpower. They’ve got the tightest, most furious live show in rap, but it’s exactly the sort of show that the intangibles of a TV taping might derail. It’s hard to build up any sort of momentum, after all, when you have to make room for commercial breaks every ten minutes or when an assistant director might run onstage mid-song, waving his hands and asking you to start it over from the top.
This soundstage was a whole lot smaller than the one Jay-Z used, which makes sense, considering that I’m not even sure whether I get VH1 Soul. The set seemed constructed for the Roots of the late 90s, the one at the center of a thriving Philly neo-soul scene. The decor was what I’d have to call fake-coffeeshop: dark wood paneling, light dusting of smoke-machine smoke, calculated signifiers of authenticity. The Roots of Rising Down don’t have much to do with that stuff anymore, at least not on record. Rising Down is harsh, grinding, apocalyptic synth-rap, the type of thing that would clear out most actual coffeeshops. But the Roots’ live show has maintained its own form of chaotic focus for at least the ten years I’ve been seeing them; it exists virtually independent of the actual records. I’ve seen them in half-empty college auditoriums and rammed-in clubs and huge free-festival outdoor stages, and they’ve adapted to all of them admirably, so maybe the soundstage last night wasn’t too huge of a stretch. (This wasn’t, after all, their first TV taping.) Weird as it was to see Black Thought silencing his own cusswords or the band cutting itself off in the middle of its entropic jams to make room for commercial breaks, they never seemed out of their element. And this was the first time I’d seen them in front of a crowd this small (about 150), and so it was cool to see them working as a sort of mechanistic unit up close, everyone pulling off subtle little mid-song rhythmic shifts or stopping on a dime. In front of a crowd that small, Black Thought’s frontman deficiencies amount to a whole lot less; the band’s interplay becomes the main attraction.
Even though the Roots’ live show has maintained its singular identity, the band itself keeps changing, last night’s lineup only sharing three members with the one I first saw a decade ago. The latest switch-up was particularly disorienting: Owen Biddle, a smallish white guy with a neck-beard in place of Hub. Lamont Caldwell, a guy I met at a barbecue in Philly last year, now plays saxophone for them, making up a third of their horn section. (Lamont also fronts a rock band, MACH22, which he keeps emailing me about.) Tuba Gooding Jr., apparently the newest full-time member of the band, doesn’t play a part in that horn-section. Instead he’s a free-floating presence, playing the bass parts whenever Biddle takes a solo and tirelessly lugging his gigantic instrument across the stage like it’s nothing; last night, he was probably the most charismatic figure onstage.
After starting out with a tense, furious “Rising Down,” Black Thought doing the Mos Def and Styles P verses along with his own, and trotting Wale and Chrisette Michel out for a joyous, frenetic “Rising Up,” the band was done with the new album, digging back through their older material with their usual revisionist flair. And so they made another entry into their long tradition of versions of “You Got Me” that sound nothing like the original. “The Seed 2.0” morphed into a roiling take on Bobby Womack’s “I Can Understand It,” with Thought actually singing and doing pretty well at it. The obnoxious indulgent jammy moments still came up every once in a while: Captain Kirk Douglas simultaneously soloing and scatting during “You Got Me,” for instance. But this was probably the closest thing I’ve seen to a fat-free Roots show, the band trimming its set down to fit the hour-long TV format and still managing to summon their usual onstage energy. These were pretty much the worst possible circumstances in which to see a Roots show: soundstage, cameras getting in the way, frequent enforced breaks, recent sweeping lineup changes. And they still managed to pull off a pretty great little set. The last Roots show I saw was the near-disastrous first of their two-night stand at Radio City a couple of years back, and I was disappointed when ?uestlove couldn’t deliver the insane barrage of surprise guests he’d promised. Last night, though, they promised next to nothing and still wrecked. I wasn’t even mad when they had to re-take the first couple of songs for the camera’s benefit. It’ll probably look great on TV.
Voice review: Harry Allen on the Roots’ Rising Down
Voice review: Will Dukes on the Roots’ Game Theory
Voice review: Oliver Wang on the Roots’ The Tipping Point
Voice review: Dave Tompkins on the Roots’ Phrenology
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on the Roots’ Things Fall Apart