Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

Above: “You Got Me” in Japan earlier this year.

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Underground artist Girl Talk has generated some buzz with his second album, which layers Public Enemy over Heart, mashes M.I.A. with the Cranberries and mixes “C’mon N Ride It (The Train)” into “99 Tears.”

What Girl Talk does on his laptop, the Roots did live on stage for two hours on Thursday in the sold-out Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge. Whether it was bass player Owen Biddle quoting the melody for Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” MC Black Thought leading the way through Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” or between-song riffs on “Iko Iko” or “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” the septet touched on nearly every facet of recorded music.

The Roots’ biggest hit, “You Got Me,” was also the most transformed. The song somehow morphed from neo soul ballad into “My Favorite Things,” a bass solo/metal jam and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” before wrapping up.

The evening started quietly, with guitarist Kirk Douglas alone onstage, noodling away. With a tip of the hat to the Talking Heads, the other band members slowly joined him and picked up their instruments. By the time everyone was assembled MC Black Thought ripped into “I Can’t Help It.” They wouldn’t let up for the next hour.

Prowling the stage like panthers, the super-tight ensemble dropped volume and tempo on a dime, majestically flowing each song into the next regardless of style or arrangement — the ultimate mixtape.

There were no down moments or low points. Each song fed off the previous number’s energy and all were spectacular. Of particular note was a reading of “Quills” taken at Ramones speed that showcased Black Thought’s amazing breath control and stamina.

When most bands want more low end they turn the bass up. The Roots hired a tuba player. Damon Bryson, a.k.a. Tuba Gooding Jr., leapt joyously about the stage despite his heavy instrument, blasting away “All in the Music” and buoying the typically horn-heavy “Jungle Boogie.” Longtime Roots collaborator James Poyser sat in for missing keyboard player Kamal Gray and added a Dr. Dre synth line to “I Will Not Apologize.”

The centerpiece of the evening was a 15-minute rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Performed by the trio of drummer Questlove, Tuba and Douglas, the song was previously played at the band’s rapturous performance in Kansas City at Harrah’s last year. Questlove said they were going to keep doing it until the war in Iraq was over. The song bobbed and weaved its way through the “Star Spangled Banner,” “Taps,” a military drum cadence, a Black Sabbath send-up and a drum solo. Owing more to Jimi Hendrix’ “Machine Gun” than Woody Guthrie, the song ended with Douglas and Tuba working their way through the crowd, soloing furiously. It was an eerie prelude to Independence Day.

For people who need classifications, the Roots are typically filed under hip hop. For everyone else, they are everything that’s right with music today.

Setlist: I Can’t Help It, Rising Up, Please Don’t Go, In the Music, Star, Quills, Step Into the Realm, Proceed, Long Time, Mellow My Man, Act Too (The Love of My Life), Criminal, Masters of War, I Will Not Apologize, You Got Me, Get Busy, Jungle Boogie/Don’t Feel Right, The Next Movement (encore:) The Seed 2.0, Men at Work

Below: The first third of “Masters of War” from Montreal last May.

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