Concert Reviews

The Roots Play It Safe in Denver

The Legendary Roots Crew played Denver.
Tristan Niskanen
The Legendary Roots Crew played Denver.
The members of the Roots seemed a little too content on Friday night, July 20, at the Fillmore Auditorium. Although they call themselves "the Legendary Roots Crew," they played it safe by relying on cover songs and solos instead of the originals that distinguish them as one of the hardest-working, most talented hip-hop groups of all time.

The doors opened at 8, but the Roots didn't hit the stage until 10:30 p.m., the same time that they play on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, as the house band.

The wait time would have been expected for most concerts had there been an opener, but there was just a DJ spinning some relaxed funk and hip-hop. The first hour was fine, but the crowd's energy took a dive after two passed and there was still no sign of the band.

click to enlarge The eleven-member Roots touring band. - TRISTAN NISKANEN
The eleven-member Roots touring band.
Tristan Niskanen
Known for a diverse sound, ambitious and creative records, and celebrity bandmembers, the Roots have been making authentic hip-hop since 1987. At the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts, drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter founded the group, originally called the Square Roots. Since then, there have been several lineup changes to the band, but the heart has always been Questlove and Black Thought.

The Roots opened with what they do best: high-energy hip-hop featuring loud multi-instrumental production and smooth, artsy, conscious raps. Questlove was elevated on a platform with his drum set. Instead of his signature Afro pick, Questlove rocked a pink headband. Black Thought was the most stylish man in the building with his porkpie hat, gold chains, big beard and sunglasses.

click to enlarge A collection of some of the best Roots CDs, including my favorite, "Things Fall Apart." - TRISTAN NISKANEN
A collection of some of the best Roots CDs, including my favorite, "Things Fall Apart."
Tristan Niskanen
The concert was not a greatest-hits show and also wasn't the Roots concert I was expecting. In my car, I had my six-CD player filled with Roots CDs on repeat in anticipation of the show. I was listening to Questlove's Pandora station, watching Black Thought's eleven-minute Funk Flex freestyle, and had already read three of Questlove's four books. What we got at the Fillmore on Friday was a different show. The Roots touched on some of the act's most popular songs, but there was a lot of downtime. On "Act Too (The Love of My Life)," a song dedicated to hip-hop, the tempo was slowed down and the iconic loop of "hip-hop" was cut.

After a few group songs, the Roots started running through overindulgent solos that overshadowed the more compelling collective numbers. Sure, you rarely see a sousaphone solo at a hip-hop show, but then again, a four-minute sousaphone solo doesn't exactly reinforce what makes the Roots crew legendary.

Despite all that individual noodling, there was no clear solo for Questlove, whom critics often mention in the same sentence as Clyde Stubblefield, Prince, and Stevie Wonder for his drumming. Why didn't he ever have the spotlight to himself?

click to enlarge Black Thought rapping alonside the Roots - TRISTAN NISKANEN
Black Thought rapping alonside the Roots
Tristan Niskanen
Black Thought did rap a lot during group numbers but didn't kick a freestyle, scat, or play any of his recent solo work. This year, he released a five-song EP of straight rhymes and no hooks, produced by 9th Wonder, called Streams of Thought Vol. 1. He also, on the same day as this show, released the powerful title track to the upcoming docu-series called Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, which debuts July 30 on Paramount Network and BET. So where was Black Thought's spotlight?

Alongside the plethora of solos, the Roots squeezed in some questionable cover songs like "Sweet Child O' Mine" that nodded to their time at The Tonight Show more than their career as a hip-hop band. Perhaps that was fitting. Most of the crowd was above 25, and many were likely there because they are more interested in late-night TV than the Roots' enduring legacy.