The Roots + Floetry = Virtuosity
The Roots and Floetry. Live at The Roxy, Boston. Wednesday May 18 2005
Intro * The Scene * The Vibe Y'All * Outro
I Shall... Proceed... And Continue... To Rock The Mic
Everybody Is A Star
"Go All Stars, Get Down For Y'all"
The 'Notic, The Hypnotic = Floetry, Floacism
All You Gotta Do Is Say Yes
Illadelph Halflife Meets Ill London Flow
Bring Some Money To Spend And Somebody To Lend And Some Worthwhile Money Not Some 20s And 10s
They're Coming To Break You Off
Don't Say Nuthin'
All Roads Lead To Apache
With Thought At Work, It's The Next Movement
I Don't Care As Long As The Bass Line's Thumping And The Drum Line's Banging Away
Kool Herc Ain't Never Seen A Royalty Check
Hip Hop You're The Love Of My Life
The Legendary Roots Crew Stay Cool In The Melting Pot
We Are The Ultimate (Rock-Rocking It)
That's What's Happening In The Parking Lot. That's What's Happening On Stage.
Din Da Da (Dun Do Do)
Do You Want More?
Somebody's Gotta Do It When The Guns Are Drawn
The Roots Come Alive
The Tipping Point Is Here And That's The Bottom Line
Give The Drummer Some
Keep the Beat Going
Bring The Beat Back. Bring The Beat Back.
The Scene (Combat Zone)
You might sense a little exuberance, a little elation, a little plain joy in these parts and you'd be right. Wednesday night with The Roots and Floetry was even more reason to sport that wide smile that I've been bearing of late. It was a cheer that started in the long lines that stretched out for 2 blocks outside The Roxy. In downtown Boston, the Theatre District is very close to what is lovingly called the Combat Zone. Indeed during my first visit to Chinatown in 1991, there were gunshots and people scrambling as we walked out of the Boylston T Stop (200 metres from The Roxy) to try to get some Dim Sum. Most Harvard students tend to stay in Cambridge which has pretty much everything they need thus each excursion to Boston and its environs is an event. With guns drawn, that outing certainly fitted the bill;it was a great Sunday brunch by the way, baptism by fire as it were.
Now of course the city has cleaned things up since then. There was a concerted effort in this liberal bastion to husband the commons in a kinder, gentler mode than Rudy MussoGiuliani in New York. In the black community at least, the churches got everyone together and knocked heads around. There was one incident that was the last straw the community could bear in 1992 when teenage gang members came guns drawn chasing people into Morning Star Baptist Church and stabbed a kid during a funeral service for a teenager who himself had been killed in a drive-by shooting days earlier. Pastors and Samaritans everywhere started hitting the streets and patiently mentoring youths and forming a Ten Point Coalition that hasn't let ever since. With the Big Dig Irish/Italian/Federal/Mafia money to spread around for the past 15 years, a little dotcom boom and bust, the current biotech splurging, and a set of savvy universities around Boston with their 300,000 students in mind, it appeared that lots of things could go well for the community and economy. The notion was that it would pay for government and even Big Government to actually to manage the cultural and economic zeitgeist so that social ties were woven together and one wouldn't end up like the anomic New Haven, to take an example of what social neglect can do.
So now there are fewer porno emporiums or theaters in the Combat Zone. Whoever had the inspired idea of placing the Registry of Motor Vehicles next to that sordid theatre knew very well the power of shame in human affairs. Thus there has been considerable gentrification throughout the city of Boston and Developers With Vision™ have tried to clean things up. There are lots of gleaming and spiffy new buildings around, including the fancy Loews Theater at Boston Common outside of which the Star Wars tribe had camped out to buy tickets at the stroke of midnight for this Friday's Sith-like Revenge on office productivity everywhere.
However the move up-market was done in typical liberal fashion, with much hand-wringing about gaining community consent and buy-in from those affected. This is why there is the occasional attraction for strong men and fascism, they make the trains run on time. Ghana, like Chile before us, could only be a poster child of the IMF and World Bank in the late 80s because it was ruled by vicious rogues who could run roughshod over the wishes of their populace. Things are not so easy when you have a case of the episodic ballot box. Thus Franklin D. Roosevelt's "He's our sonofabitch" theory of the Realpolitik of "vital interests" and the recurring marriages of convenience with noxious strongmen and Strange Bedfellows are played out in such a grisly fashion in Uzbekistan and other countries even today.
With no dictator in place to press the issue, there is still a significant minority of people around Boston and Cambridge who haven't heard the word about the clean up program. Thus as you head for the opera or some fancy show, dressed in your finest tuxedo or shimmering dresses (Swan Lake was playing at the Boston Ballet which I must see at some point), you'll pass the 7-Eleven at the corner of Tremont and Kneeland and see a few (shockingly young) hookers and their rough but effete pimps, most just a few years older, casting a wary eye and assessing the likelihood of your disbursing cash money for The Game all the while speaking a patois full of puns, coinages and ghetto witticisms. Some of us were harried after long days at work or the minutiae of dissertation completion and were dressed down hence we glossed over these gritty urban fixtures. Our thoughts were all about the Sound of Philly and perhaps Brixton or Deptford.
Others however had seen a late addition on the Ticketmaster web site about a purported dress code, "No Jeans, No SNEAKERS, or Athletic Wear", which I suspect caused much gnashing of teeth and wardrobe deliberation. The notion that a low rent joint like The Roxy was ever going to enforce a dress code on an $18 ticket to a hip-hop show was hilarious to me, but I suppose others took this seriously because I saw a fair number of people dressed up as if this were one of the summer concerts along the waterfront, or the adjacent Boston Ballet for that matter, instead of a hip-hop soul lovefest. People wearing uncomfortable shoes, plus a late start - 10:30pm on a Wednesday night, might cast a shadow on some of the enjoyment.
One thing to note is that this one-off concert was sponsored by a cigarette company and there was a certain dissonance in seeing Surgeon General's warnings on the video screens above the stage right after a stream of "Kool" images (tagline: Be True and A New Jazz Philosophy) floated past repeatedly. Just in the past year, Angie Stone was sipping on Remy Red and Jill Scott's tour was sponsored by Alizé. I suppose the floodgates opened when KRS-One did the Sprite tv commercial to the sound of The Revolution Will Not be Televised. Gil Scott Heron must not own his masters. Ironies abound when companies in the guilty pleasure industries pick up all the "progressive" artists; one wonders a little about artistic integrity but maybe it's a matter of holding your nose and paying the bills (dollar, dollar bill y'all). Who else is going to sponsor the next movement?
Left-of-center artists like The Roots have a very diverse audience, they are musicians' musicians, and hip-hop's favourite jam band thus the crowd was a kind of Rainbow Coalition of neo-soul and hip-hop aficionados, the kind of people portrayed in candy like Brown Sugar. The addition of Floetry brought out a few more older African-American women to the table, intellectual poetry with harmonies, wit and the kind of groove that gave Michael Jackson Butterflies. Everyone looked good and expectant and harassed college students could escape their fears about the courses they had neglected all semester before buckling down for finals. This was the place to be if you weren't a George Lucas addict.
The Vibe Y'all
If you walked in to a joint to the booming sounds of A Tribe Called Quest's Electric Relaxation, you would know that everything was going to be all right. Like Earth Wind and Fire singing Keep Your Head to the Sky and Devotion live, it felt like a revival meeting so "Clap your hands this evening. Say it's all right. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah."
With 'that dude from Living Colour' guesting on guitar (I turns out that it was Vernon Reid and not "The Other Guy"), this was a performance that sometimes verged on the rock side of things. Well as rocked out as a hip-hop sensibility allows and with the good Captain Kirk Douglas also doing a mean Hendrix or more accurately a Kravitz impression, the rock and soul meshed well in the flow of things. The band always pay homage to the greats with snippets of the obscure breaks thrown in every now and then and this time it was Ray Charles' What I'd Say that did the trick.
Coincidentally this past weekend I had been in New York and passed by my favourite crate digging place Rock and Soul on 35th and 7th and, if I hadn't had a train to catch, would have spent a good couple of hundred bucks on essential breakbreats.
In any case the musical territory covered was hip-hop, rock, soul (with a very soulful new backing singer who's just joined them and not mere eye candy too, she can sign), lilting reggae to straighten things out. Black Thought is completely in control of things these days and now that he no longer hoards up his charisma or turns his back from the audience, the love is plainly reciprocated. The way he started with the pyrotecnics of Web, that one verse drum-and-bass, old school raw adrenaline was astounding and there was no let up. The humour and verbal dexterity (the breath control) is about about as good as it gets, I'm reminded of Big Daddy Kane or Kool Moe Dee going to work on things but with a millennial flow. Kamal at times introduced jazz and classical keyboard breaks, he's still hip-hop's Ahmad Jamal and towards the end gifted us with an amazing church keyboard solo that hit the spot. Hub's styles himself as a cross between Michael Henderson who made Miles Davis simply Live/Evil when he pushed him to slickaphonics and foot-foolery in the early 70s and Miko Weaver who, along with Eric Leeds, pushed His Royal Badness into the zone.
And the drummers you ask? Frankie Knuckles on percussion, in empathy with ?uestlove's mission, adding great effects especially when they tilted towards reggae, soul and funk.
?uestlove on the drums is simply scary and deserves his own paragraph. The frenetic and phonetic Brother Questlove is a perfectionist on his instrument, I now put him ahead of Kariem Riggins who got the nod last year because of his regular jazz moonlighting. Having listened to the Grover Washington-influenced Philadelphia Experiment, and heard the swinging I Am Music from Common's Electric Circus of which he was the executive producer, I knew he could do jazz and now with the kind of live performance that leaves you awestruck, there was simply too much talent to consider.
There was a point when it felt like that moment in the Sign O' The Times concert during It's Gonna be a Beautiful Night, right after the band has worked out on the Detroit Crawl when Prince says "Night Train" and the band switches on the dime and Duke Ellington's chorus blares from the horn section fitting perfectly and dazzling the audience. Or when James Brown was In a Jungle Groove for those magical 4 years starting in 1969, or even the point in Curtis Live during (Don't Worry) If There's Hell Below We're All Gonna Go when Brother Curtis sings
Cat Calling, Love Balling
Fussing And Cussing
Top Billing Now Is Killing
For Peace No One Is Willing
Kind Of Make You Get That Feeling
Use The Pill And The Dope
Pimping People Is The Rule
Polluted Water In The Pool
And Nixon Talking About Don't Worry
He Says Don't Worry
But They Don't Know There Can Be No Show
And If There's A Hell Below We're All Gonna Go
Need I go on? At such moments, the music, audience and performers are in complete consonance. This is what I call virtuosity. This is life in a rarefied zone.
In last year's Toli Music Awards, I wrote
They've certainly hit a groove. It's like Prince circa 1986-7 when the Miles Davis horns came into his arrangements on the Parade. They've done the kiss-off album (Phrenology as Around the World in a Day) to throw off fairweather fans. They are now going for the vituousic and this works perfectly. Could a Sign O' The Times be in the offing next?
That was before hearing them on Giles Peterson and certainly before seeing them take it to the stage in the tradition of Funkadelic. I got my answer I believe.
Suffice to say that the kind of music I heard live last night has blown the band way past The Tipping Point they proclaimed was their due. The Roots are so confident in what they are doing these days that they make it appear effortless. The elated audience felt it too. Floetry who are so versatile were similarly inspired in their performance. They weren't blown off stage as almost anyone else who had to follow The Roots would be, but did their own thing and got a lot of love and plain respect. Their vibe is one of great invention, harmonizing, operatic and sensual with some London Yardie and garage inklings. It's a White Teeth meets a Brick Lane Sense and Sensibility. The thing about such musical intelligence is that at times it can be too dense and overwhelming but both bands kept the Boom Bap factor in mind so they "Rock(Ed) It To The Bang Bang Boogie Say Up Jumped The Boogie To The Rhythm Of The Boogie, The Beat"
The Roots closed out with a their usual 45 minute Hip Hop 101 tribute medley to those who have gone before them. They always choose different heroes to focus on and this time even went into more commercial club-banging territory (snippets of Biggie even turned up) intermixed with the exhilarating instrumental rare groove of Booker T and the MG's Melting Point that I pointed out earlier as the Jazz Funk in a Blanket of Soul.
Since the DJ who warmed the club up was utter early nineties nostalgia, I'll close with this lyrical zinger from that same era, a golden era in retrospect, Chubb Rock's Yabadabadoo:
From The RustlerAs we walked out at 2am to brave those denizens of the night who were still plying their trade in the combat zone, there was a little wistfulness about whether the car would still be there. It was hence highly appropriate that we were handed a couple of fliers for next weekend's Pimps and Hoes party.
The Fat Lady Sang
I Crushed Her.
Word Up The Chubbster
Iceberg Slim's hoedown aesthetic is now a commonplace with Don "Magic" Juan, 50 Cent and Snoop literally pimping the cultural (and financial) zeitgeist. Thankfully people like the more reflective Ice-T have stepped off that program (and never would I have dreamt of writing a sentence containing the words reflective and Ice-T but that is a sign of the times). Perhaps one should see this as just a bit of fun, the ascendancy of a culture of irrepressible irreverence and reinvention, a kind of poking your thumb in the eye of those august New York Times types who now write editorials about how hip-hop lost its way. What these grey ladies don't understand is that that hip-hop is vibrant enough that Ludacris and De La Soul can coexist and even feed off each other without dissonance. Even if I were that way inclined, I'm off to London next weekend and anyway what would Malcolm and Martin think? The commercial road is certainly a heavily travelled path for instant gratification. The Roots and Floetry aesthetic simply shrugs of such concerns and tries to win you over with musical dexterity, one performance at a time, and it pays off I think. As the Black Sheep (who were also played during the warm up) put it, The Choice is Yours: "You can get with this or you can get with that". In my book, the tortoise does beat the hare in the end. I might take Richard Pryor over Bill Cosby but I still love both aspects of the culture. Mission: Music.
With a Philly groove still echoing in my ears, this was simply blasé blasé to me. I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
File under: music, virtuosity, elation, exuberance, soul, hip-hop, jazz, funk, poetry, rock, Philly, The Roots, Floetry, culture, vibe, lyricism, dexterity, musicians, Living Colour, Miles Davis, Prince, Curtis Mayfield, Chubb Rock, Vernon Reid, Boston, urban, life, development, black, history, sociology, Broken Windows, concert, review, roots, Ghana, Chile, Uzbekistan, toli