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The Roots. Photos by Jermaine Bagnall.
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THE ROOTS as part of LUMINATO at David Pecaut Square, Saturday, June 7. Rating: NNNN
The setup at David Pecaut Square was idyllic for Luminato Festival's biggest headliners, the original live hip-hop band, The Roots. Sure, the line for Parts & Labour's Mexican food stand was very long, but the weather was perfect, there was plenty of room on the grass to take in the Philly-born group's sold-out performance (there were even artsy, cardboard loungers if you were so inclined), and, the large stage was backdropped by skyscrapers bearing the reflection of a lit-up CN Tower. Pretty nifty.
The Roots have a new album out, but this wasn't a tour for ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Instead, the seven-man band played old favourites like In The Music from 2006's Game Theory album, The Seed (2.0) from 2002's Phrenology and You Got Me from 1999's Things Fall Apart. But in lieu of your typical greatest hits set, they played a steady stream of music for nearly two hours: songs meandered and flowed one into the other nonstop, except for a handful of choreographed pauses, when all band members except emcee Black Thought would freeze for a few seconds in exaggerated poses before resuming to great applause with some unexpected hit or invigorated cover song. The transitions were flawless - twenty-seven years of playing together shows; as does the kind of onstage professionalism that gets you a nightly gig as Jimmy Fallon's house band.
Woven throughout the set were choreographed, Motown-evoking dance moves, a mind-blowing beatbox performance that transitioned straight into Chaka Demus & Pliers Murder She Wrote, an exhilarating two-man drum-off between Questlove and percussionist Frank Knuckles, guitar solo after guitar solo by "Captain" Kirk Douglas (the intro riff to Sweet Child O' Mine got big claps), a reverby Welcome to Jamrock cover, and Black Thought doing a helluva James Brown. Most impressive, maybe, was Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson on sousaphone. It wasn't just the way he grounded the band with blasty bass, or his solos that make even a spectator out of breath, but the sheer physicality of dancing with that thing - at one point he literally did laps of the stage, being chased by the other bandmembers.
Once in a while, the band did seem a little like they were tapping into party-trick territory to placate any possible kind of music lover. But that's OK for a festival like Luminato, which draws in an audience with diverse music and art tastes, as well as the Roots' die-hard fans.
Only one rather annoying problem: superstar drummer Questlove (the producer/turntablist/writer who is also the face of the band) was set up with two mics. The one to his left started working about halfway through the show, but the one on his right was silent the entire time - a huge technical flub that was especially frustrating when Black Thought was engaging him in banter, and we missed all the punchlines. How a mistake that big couldn't be identified and fixed over a two-hour performance is very puzzling.