House of Blues; Sat 4
When the Roots announced they would be settling in as the house band for NBC’s latest Late Night, fans kvetched as if the Philly hip-hop icons were strapping on Fonzie’s water skis. The critically adored political act working for the ham who starred in that movie about the super taxi? The decision was seen as the Greatest Live Rap Band throwing in the towel on touring.
In hindsight, it was the wisest move of the Roots’ career. The drummer, Questlove, tweets to 1.4 million followers. Black Thought—pissed and poetic on records—cracks jokes and shows off his soft soul pipes. And in all those inspired collaborations with guest musicians—Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Christopher Cross, Spoon, etc.—the tight, tuba-fueled combo flexes unexpected muscles.
That loose, synergistic spirit carried over to the Roots’ 2010 studio output. On How I Got Over, Joanna Newsom, the girls from the Dirty Projectors and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James pop up over Questo’s crisp snare thwacks and James Poyser’s twinkling piano, continuing the band’s evolution into a hybrid of nocturnal lounge act and ’70s hippie funk crew. It’s the closest the guys have come to weaving beads in their braids.
“The Fire,” an inspirational 4/4 march with John Legend, led to a spin-off, Wake Up!, a platter of slick activist-soul covers: Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and more. The tracks showed the Roots branching out further into dub reggae, as on “Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be),” and electric guitar freak-outs (“I Can’t Write Left Handed”), and striving to keep “Yes, We Can” alive.
But as Jimmy Fallon has proven, this is a band to be seen in person.