All words: Alan Pyke
Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter had less room to navigate onstage at the newly renovated Howard Theatre than he did in the video of The Roots’ first show in 1993 that surfaced two weeks ago. But that’s a reflection of how the band has grown, in numbers and personality, over the past 19 years, not a lack of space on the Howard’s stand. The timing of it all, with that video popping online a few days before The Roots returned to DC for back-to-back nights, made it easy to appreciate the showmanship and poise these guys have developed over two decades of nonstop touring.
The setlist was almost identical for both shows, with the band reaching far back for classics like “Next Movement,” “My Mellow My Man,” and “Double Trouble” (where Black Thought’s rendition of Mos Def’s verse was more entertaining than Mos’ recent disjointed set at 9:30 Club). But if the songs were the same, the energy was entirely different between Sunday and Monday. The larger, younger, and perhaps more lubricated crowd took Monday night’s energy to a wilder place.
They opened with “Web” from 2004’s The Tipping Point, with only Tariq, Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson, percussionist Frank Knuckles and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on stage under flat white lighting. The rest of the band joined in time to launch “Thought @ Work,” a staple of every Roots set, while the musicians gestured offstage to get their levels just right. From there it was the title track of 2010’s underrated How I Got Over, with guitarist Kirk “Captain Kirk” Douglas singing one of the catchiest hooks ever provided by a band that specializes in catchy hooks.
The supercharged rendition of “Here I Come” that followed was a reminder that these guys love to take their jamminest, fastest cuts and slap an extra 30 BPM on top when it comes time to play them live. (Questo had two vocal mics, one of them wired into the earpieces worn by the other bands members. When he really ripped into solos or particularly emphatic beats, the two mics by his head twitched and jiggled, antennae-like extensions of his gleaming black kit. Thought commands most of the attention, but Thompson’s the one keeping everyone coordinated when they mess with tempo and rhythm of familiar tunes.)
A few songs later they pulled the opposite trick with “Step Into The Relm,” one of their very best and one of the earliest cuts to establish Thought as an all-timer among lyricists. At the Howard, the track was stripped to a hypnotically mellow pace and stoned murmur for the the first half of each verse, then thrown back into gear a few bars before the hook. It sounded almost like a record playing on a turntable with a bad belt. An impressive and, yes, self-indulgent warping of one of their funkiest, most beloved songs, but if any band has earned the right to show off it’s The Roots.
It’s hard enough to come up with a reason to miss a Roots show when they’re playing the 9:30 Club, but a chance to see the greatest hiphop band of all time in what is simultaneously the newest and most renowned venue in DC can’t go by the wayside. The Howard is stunning, elegantly appointed, and brimming with smart details from the slanted rail in front of the soundboard to keep drinks away to the cameras that put a live feed of the show on several TVs behind the bar and two stageside jumbotrons.
From on-stage dance lines to Tuba Gooding Jr’s foray into the crowd during Sunday’s rendition of the classic sexjam “Break You Off,” the crew made excellent use of the space throughout both shows. Bryson’s charm and verse are contagious, and he even tried to dance with an enthusiastic but slightly confused girl during his trip through the crowd. (She would’ve loved to get close. There was a sousaphone in the way.) By the time he made it back to the stage, the entire band was laughing so hard that Questlove had to stop “You Got Me” to tell him to get offstage for a second so everybody could finish cracking up, “so we can play the song.” These guys enjoy the hell out of each other, and they clearly appreciated the setting. Thought gave voice to that sentiment at the very end of Sunday’s encore, saying they were proud to “rechristen the beautifully historic and acoustically correct Howard Theatre.”
Sunday’s highlight for me came when the band hit a go-go beat and lit into the Beastie Boys classic “Paul Revere”… with Questo kicking every line of every verse. Dude can rap! Aside from being a human metronome and a Level 17 Rhythm Elemental, dude.can.rap. In a joyous, unassuming, backyard-barbecue kind of way. And whether it was the go-go rhythm (far from the only time they played that location-conscious card) or the way Questlove and Thought completely owned the cover, the crowd’s energy hit a pinnacle during that moment.
Ditto for Monday’s set, where instead of the Beastie Boys it was Eric B & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend.” Questlove cut the track in the middle of the first verse to call a girl from the front row up on stage because he saw her rapping along. She did herself proud, nailing the first verse and then letting Black Thought take over the rest, punctuating the rhymes she knew. One of those unique moments that makes a great hiphop show so special. Afterward, Tuba Gooding made sure to give her the copy of the setlist that was taped up backstage.
The standard Roots montage of covers came next, with the band touching on disco classics, Stevie Wonder, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Mannish Boy,” and the freakinest, jamminest version of “Who Do You Love” you might ever hear. Every Roots set features a 20-40 minute string of partial covers that doubles as a showcase for Captain Kirk’s range, from overdrive-heavy soul licks to back bends to pure facemelting shred. His trademark – long solos where he scats along pitch-perfect, doubling every lick into an impossibly sexy display of talent – brought the house down on Monday night. They even broke out a chorus of “Immigrant Song” to close out the medley, before bringing out Dice Raw for the Rising Down banger “Get Busy,” which was a real treat for longtime fans of the only non-Black Thought emcee to feature on every Roots album. (Though if he was in the wings both nights, why not bring him out for his verse on “Here I Come”? Probably the hyper pace of the live rendition.)
From there it was a rhythm showcase with Questo and Knuckles doing a call-and-response drum feature while the rest of the guys took a short break. Sunday’s encore become Monday’s simple closeout, as the band eschewed the customary leave-while-people-go-nuts move and went straight into “The Seed,” which still makes folks lose it, and a quick cover of “Move On Up,” among others. The Howard’s a big room, and it was full of smiles as people filed out. I was a bit sad not to hear any cuts from last year’s brilliant album undun, but they would have been out of place in a set that was much more about raising the old gods of rhythm and fun than that record’s weighty concepts. I hold no grudge. Neither did anyone else.