They’re best known as the house band from Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, but there’s a reason The Roots constantly refer to themselves as “legendary,” even if it’s a little ironic when they do. Since the 1990s, they’ve been creating hard, driving grooves and refining their style to incorporate not just hip hop, but jazz, classic R&B, rock, and just about everything in between. In short, they have become a formidable live band.
For example, the Friday night concert at Riverfront Park in Harrisburg, part of the University of Harrisburg Summer Concert Series. The band delivered a relentless and energetic set that didn’t stop from the moment they hit the stage until it was time to leave.
The show was packed (not great if you’re still paranoid about COVID-19 like me) and hot (a poor guy near me appeared to pass out and had to be escorted out by security). But if you missed tonight’s concert, you might have missed central Pennsylvania’s best show this summer. Here are 6 reasons why.
1. It’s all about the groove. The core of the band is drummer/band leader Amir “Questlove” Thompson. He, along with bassist Mark Kelley, sousaphone player (yes, that’s right) Damon Bryson (aka “Tuba Gooding Jr.”) and band percussionist Stro Elliot, set a fast pace over the night that gave the rest of the band room to stretch. Moreover, this tense flow never wavered or stopped once, but remained steady and crisp throughout the evening, with Thompson giving a literal flick of the wrist to go from song to song. other, making the switch between, say, classic tracks like “What They Do” and “The Next Movement” seem effortless.
2. Black Thought is one of the best living, easy rappers. He might not immediately come to most people’s minds when making a list of the best entertainers, but rest assured that Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter is hands down one of the greatest rappers to date. . Beyond the fact that his lyrics are incisive, clever, and dense (and it’s all of those things), his Friday night delivery was fast and furious. On “Web”, for example, he spat bars like “Never hesitate again, I get heavy checks / If you dare ask if I’m dedicated – yes / I spit, live ammunition that would penetrate a vest, at a rapid rate of fire, making me think, ‘wow, he must have amazing breath control’, and then, ‘holy cow, he does this almost every night.’
Also, at the start of the show, he brought his brother and sister-in-law up on stage to celebrate their anniversary and they danced while the band performed. It was just a really sweet moment.
3. Versatility. Working as a Tonight Show band over the past few years has likely forced The Roots to expand their musical vocabulary (not that they were initially limited). And that expansive vocabulary was on full display in Harrisburg as they transitioned from the boom bap style of “The Next Movement” to the disco funk of a cover of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and then on to a seeming multitude of others. directions. They brought new takes to familiar songs, adding a touch of dance hall vibe to the frenetic “Here I Come” and doubling the tempo of “The Seed 2.0”. And the covers were many and varied, from the jazzy “Soul Makossa” to a soaring rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up”. Towards the end of the night, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas’ solo for “You Got Me” included tracks from “Love to Love you Baby” and “Running Up That Hill” before erupting into a Hendrix-esque fury.
4 Speaking of which, what about those solos? As if to underscore just how talented each member of The Roots is, almost every member had a chance to shine, including saxophonist/flutist Ian Hendrickson-Smith and trumpeter Dave Guy, whose spirited and soaring performances left little in doubt. that this was a group that knew exactly what it was doing. Even keyboardist Kamal Gray came out twice playing a keytar – A KEYTAR PEOPLE – and even had a fun little back and forth with the sousaphone player.
5 This sousaphone player though. In addition to playing sousaphone and tuba, Damon Bryson served as something of a Jerome to Black Thought’s Morris Day, constantly running back and forth across the stage, dancing and encouraging the crowd whenever possible to cheer. His cheerful demeanor seemed infectious, and towards the end the band began to rhythmically step behind Black Thought, bringing a bit of Motown flair to the proceedings.
6. The opening band wasn’t bad either. The Peterson Brothers of Austin, Texas brought an infectious funk-laden groove to their short opening set. All of the band members were stellar, but a special mention has to go to bassist Alex Peterson who was reminiscent of a young Bootsy Collins or Larry Graham with his driving, thumb-snapping basslines. I wouldn’t say their rendition of “Take Me to the River” was funkier than the Al Green or Talking Heads versions, but it came close.
There’s still a bit of summer left and there are plenty of other artists coming to downtown Pa. But The Roots have set the bar high for other artists to follow. The ball is in your court Lady Gaga.