Monday, May 2, 2016

The Roots at Sunfest 2016

I knew The Roots were playing Sunfest for months and considered going early on. But I don't normally like big outdoor festivals like this because the sound is never great and you don't get the intimate experience I like. So I went back and forth on whether or not I would go for months. Then, just by coincidence I wound up reading Questlove's book and got all hyped up to see them, no matter what. I'm glad I did.

By now, anyone that's into watching late night TV is probably at least aware of what a wide range of talent there is in The Roots. I don't watch the show, but I'm sure what they bring to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is unlike any other band in the history of late night talk shows. I'm sure if your not familiar with what they do it would seem odd to have a hip hop band as the house band for a show like that, but The Roots are - well, it's not that they aren't hip hop or that they are more than just hip hop, as much as that they are about the real foundations of hip hop, not the false stereotypes that often dominate popular culture. They are about music, pure and simple. And just how hip hop beatmakers might sample records from any genre, The Roots as a band will play music from any genre as well. And while that doesn't necessarily make a band talented on it's own, the way they do it, the way they can make it all fit - jazz, R&B, funk, rock, hip hop, blues - is really something that needs to be seen live to be truly appreciated.

They hit the stage and it was instant funk with "Me and Baby Brother" by War. Right off: the bass. We were right up front and I felt the bass in my chest, in my gut, and my hair was like a field of grass being rustled by the low end breeze. And yet, it wasn't over everything else like a shitty trunk rattling car on the street. It was all loud and crisp. Any concerns I had about the sound at a festival were gone. "Me and Baby Brother" flowed into Bobby Byrd's "I Know You Got Soul" and two things ran through my mind: 1. Holy shit this is awesome and 2. Black Thought is not just a rapper or even an MC: he's a funk frontman also. I came to the show because of the musicians with instruments: the band, if you will. I knew Black Thought was talented, don't get me wrong. But man, watching him spit ridiculously complex rhymes, intelligibly in a live setting, singing, dancing and generally working the crowd without ever seeming out of breath was a revelation to me. The energy level never dropped and I was just wondering if this dude who I believe is a few years older than me would come on the mic gasping for air. It never happened.

The whole band was insanely awe inspiring, really, but a special mention MUST be made for Damon Bryson, AKA Tuba Gooding, Jr. This man was jumping around with a fucking tuba on his shoulder like, well, nothing I've ever seen really. He was matching everything Capt. Kirk Douglas was doing, down to jumping off the bass drum at the end, but Douglas was just holding a guitar. And of course, there was Questlove. He tells a story in the book about how, because his parents didn't let him listen to Prince, he'd listen on headphones while practicing his drums. Except, to throw them off, he'd listen to Prince while playing something different on the drums. He says this like it's nothing in the book, completely blowing past the point of how hard that has to be to do and how that had to have either taught him or developed his sense of rhythm and flat out multitasking in  a way that is unheard of. I've sat behind a drum kit and granted, I have no training, but the coordination it takes to just be adequate is beyond me. At the level he's playing at, which isn't flashy, it's an act that seems magical, really. 

The momentum did drop for one moment in the middle when they let Jeremy Ellis do an extended DJ/beatbox beat that included a tribute to Prince. I don't want to take anything away from Ellis. What he does seems like it's not a lot, but it absolutely is not that simple. I get it. It's a talent. But after a couple of minutes it felt like a DJ club set and I just wanted the band back on. Once they came back it felt like some of the momentum had been dissipated and it took a little bit for them to get it back. At the same time, it was hot and they had been playing nonstop so I imagine it's a good time to take a break so they can catch their breath.

It was a little weird to be out in the heat watching what I kind of wish had been a club or at least small theater show. We were right up front by the stage, but it being so high up and with the phenomenon of concert goers growing taller in recent years*, it was still a lot of neck strain and discomfort and being old. None the less, it really says something that I would do it again for The Roots. I'd see them anywhere now that I really know how they are live. And I would recommend not missing them any chance you get. You don't like hip hop, you say? Well, see them anyway. Trust me. In the meantime, a close approximation is the complete set from Saturday, shot by CHeeSeHeaDPRoDuCTioNS.

*I'm thinking of doing a study to prove how concert goers are not only getting taller, but how a tall fucks level of tallness is directly correlated to their level of being a rude asshole who stands in front of people as if they weren't even there. Science!

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