Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Jam Sessions (1/8)

I suppose anything beats their last gig on Television.

We would be remiss not to begin with Jimmy Fallon of all people, without whom we would not be here today. Last week the Times did a cutesy write up on the history of blandness in Late Night talk shows, a pleasant and reassuring lullaby of familiar celebrities and timeless gags. What they failed to consider was the subversive humor of David Letterman and his spiritual heir Conan O’Brien, who take these conventions and turn them on their heads, occasionally making for brilliant and dicey humor within milquetoast packaging. Jimmy Fallon has sadly, be it by design or lack of inspiration, regurgitated the late night reviews of old, sputtering through clunky one liners aimed at easy cultural targets and struggling through bits and games with the audience that feel more like an attempt to fill time than entertain its national following. Now that all this has been said, the quality of Fallon’s show has absolutely nothing to do with the group playing snippets of music bridging commercial breaks and guest appearances.

When I heard the Roots were getting a new job I called my cousin who works in music related film and went on a European tour with the group last summer. She told me what surprised her most was how down to Earth they are. They aren’t sanctimonious babies who rant about the purity of their art. When they discussed the Late Night gig they were completely frank. They’ve been friends with Fallon for a long time, and their presence is equal parts a favor, a chance to increase their popular profile and an opportunity to come off the road for a year or so. Forget issues of appropriateness or hypocrisy. When you take a look at their history, even at their damning preachy heights on Things Fall Apart, their critiques lie in a lack of originality and dubious gangster posturing rather than thumping the puritanical values of the backpacker bible. Their new position doesn't necessarily conflict with the artistic standard they’ve created over an epic career.

In what is perhaps intended to serve as reassurance to fans in the tri state area that nothing has changed with the band's dedication to its base and commitment to making great music, in spite of their day job, the Roots have taken up residency at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea where they will play a series of 12 shows over the next four months they have titled “The Jam”. The price of admission is an unheard of 10 dollars and I was on hand for the very first installment (Thursday, March 5th).

"The Jam" is true to its name, the Roots, minus beloved long time bassist Hub being replaced by new jack O Ski Love, riff randomly behind Black Thought as he draws from his deep catalog of verses delivering them when and how he sees fit. The riffs in no way resemble any Roots beat, simply an improvisational funky/jazzy lick that mutates as it goes on, at times for 15 minute stretches. The effect is something along the lines of a good remix album, divorced from the production we’re used to hearing, verses from “In the Music” and “Get Busy” found new life and I was struck with renewed appreciation for Thought’s wordplay on the songs.

But the engine that evening was the never ending stream of guest appearances, which was crazier than I could have possibly anticipated. The Roots have apparently earned the clout to casually reach out to anyone who plays music in any form on any given night and invite them to stop on by for a little fun on stage. Talib Kweli for instance, kicked a verse or two then partook in an honest to God back and forth freestyle session with Tariq that was so seamless you had to remind yourself the two MCs weren’t in the back of a car passing a blunt and flowing over a beat tape. Pharaoh Monch kicked two verses, John Forte, fresh off a pardon got on what became an actual line of MCs waiting for the mic on stage and dropped a verse before departing, Dice Raw appeared, spit and just as quickly vanished without so much as an acknowledgment. Chrisette Michelle and Raheem Devaughn closed out the proceedings with a duet, Robert Glaspert spent a majority of the show helping out on the keys (and absolutely murdering every solo with astounding technical proficiency) but my favorite moment was the appearance of saxophone legend Gary Bartz, who gained national notoriety playing with Roots guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas-errrr I mean his dead ringer Miles Davis back in the 70s. Bartz emerged to lead the band in a stirring rendition of his “Celestial Blues” with Tariq on vocals, displaying pipes I never knew he had. It underlined the free form feel of the evening, the amazing things that can happen when you get a bunch of insanely talented people together and let them do whatever they want.

It’s easy to forget with their longtime position as Granola Gods in our tiny corner of the Hip Hop universe that The Roots are still just another band who play music to earn a living and have their personal concerns and professional ambitions like the rest of us. The Fallon Show has the potential to introduce them to a demographic from whom they would ordinarily have no connection, along with some much needed rest. At least those of us in New York can consider ourselves the beneficiaries of their decision thanks to "The Jam". Consider this moment towards the conclusion of the show at the bathroom sink as I washed my hands.

Dude: Excuse me, man.

(Dude is clearly affluent and balding painfully in a button down and slacks, he’s drunk, droopy lidded and tired looking with a plastic cup of what looks like dark liquor, soda and melting ice in one hand.)

Me: Yes?

Dude: What’s their biggest song?

Me: I’m sorry?

Dude: What’s their biggest song?

Me: Who?

Dude: Uhhhhh......The.....Root?

I walk out of the bathroom smiling, comforted with the familiar notion you get at every Roots show: That the smartest people in the room are on stage.