On a perfect Saturday night (June 7th) in Toronto, the main discussion among the dense Luminato crowd at David Pecaut Square was about how just how many times they’d seen The Roots live. For some, the annual, outdoor set was now a well-lived tradition while others were experiencing it for the first time.
While there are a great many live hip-hop shows out there, in terms of wealth of material, set diversity and unpredictability – The Roots are peerless. Drawing from a back catalog that’s now over twenty years old (including a brand-new album), the Philly veterans hit the stage with an energy that never once abated.
A quick retrospective: The Roots took form in Philadelphia a year after the release of RUN DMC’s Raising Hell. Their albums are a testament to their artistic brilliance and integrity, but also their staggering work ethic – having collaborated with everyone from the late producer/rapper J. Dilla to De La Soul; from John Legend to Elvis Costello. And while lesser bands might rest on their laurels after being hired as the backing band for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, The Roots remain hip hop’s most storied journeymen.
From minute one, The Roots’ influences are clear: the off-the-wall sermon styles of James Brown; the space-age funkfamily-throw down of Sly Stone; the conducted elegance of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the unbridled, sweaty rock of Bruce Springsteen. Whether just being debuted or a stalwart classic, The Roots’ selection of songs all sounded like they’ve been in their rotation for decades, being that they’re individual parts of something much bigger. For the first hour, every song segued in and out of a rolling cover of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” – even the incredible solo bits. Drummer Questlove and percussionist Knuckles took to their own precussion battle, which bled into a tuba solo by Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson and back into enduring classics like “Proceed”, “Here I Come” and “You Got Me”.
The band’s humour and playfulness – a huge part of the night’s energy – never interfered with their live mastery. The set felt as tirelessly rehearsed as it did brilliantly improvised. Like a Phish performance, no audience is ever going to get the same set. In this case, the band also gave a healthy run-through of tracks from their new album, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, interspersed with cover songs. The Roots absolutely thrive on their live covers and in Toronto’s case; they treated fans to versions of Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”.
And that’s the energy of a Roots show. Whether this was your first or tenth time seeing them, your guess is as good as anybody’s as to what you’re going to get set-wise. So while some fans swapped stories of having seen them back in theRahzel days, or the Chapelle’s Block Party days, seeing the Roots in 2014 is like seeing a Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. They’re a seasoned, iconic act that is not to be missed.