The Roots, Royal Festival Hall, London
Collaboration’s all you need
Monday 22 June 2009
There is a pretty widely held belief that hip-hop doesn't "work live". It is a pretty incredible claim considering the origins of the genre, but it is still one that the members of the Roots have been attempting to correct for over two decades now.
Always a much more compelling band in the flesh than on record, the Philadelphia group have built up an enviable live reputation, and tonight they have been invited to appear at the Meltdown festival, which is being curated by the legendary US saxophonist and free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman.
The set tonight is split into two halves, with the first being more akin to a standard Roots gig. It starts with just the two founding members, rapper Black Thought and drummer ?uestlove (otherwise known as Tariq Trotter and Ahmir Thompson) onstage, paying homage to some elder statesmen of hip-hop. They begin with Run DMC, before going on to Wu Tang Clan, for which they are joined by the keyboardist Kamal Gray.
It is a high-energy start, but most in the crowd remain happy to enjoy the gig from the comfort of their seats. Thankfully, The Roots aren't content to let that happen, and they get the whole room to their feet, which injects a more party-like atmosphere for "In the Music".
With the band barely stopping to catch their breath, it is a good dozen songs before Black Thought takes a break, leaving the stage free for ?uestlove to play a solo. This then turns into a drum battle with the percussionist F. Knuckles that eventually sees ?uestlove climbing off his kit and moving onto Knuckles' drums, keeping the beat going by playing part of the stage. They then move around the stage doing the same together. As a piece of improvisation, it's pretty incredible.
The rest of the band, once back, get their own solos. The most impressive comes from Vernon Reid, the former Living Colour axman and the 66th greatest guitarist of all time according to Rolling Stone. Onstage from the start, it is only now that he draws attention to himself and takes the limelight.
Meltdown is often all about the collaborations, and tonight doesn't disappoint as the band are joined by two further legends, the saxophonists David Murray and Andy Hamilton. To top it all, the curator of this year's festival, Coleman himself, arrives to take a turn and captivates the room with his unique style. "This is over 250 years of musical genius, just on this side of the stage," says Black Thought, pointing at the three.
After one more guest – the beatboxing-flautist Nathan Lee – the Roots come back by themselves for the encore. It may have been their name at the top of the bill, but they are well aware that they have played just a part in an example of world-class ensemble performance. The result is a special treat for the audience, and one that shows that great music always transcends generations.
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