February 12th, 2012, 2:13 pm · · posted by DAVID HALL, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
In the wake of Whitney Houston’s death Saturday afternoon, all my expectations about the Roots‘ annual pre-Grammys Jam Session — held for its eighth edition at House of Blues Sunset Strip the night before the 54th awards ceremony at Staples Center — suddenly came into question.
The Roots are known for their genre-spanning, inconceivably tight and star-studded showcases where they time and again prove adept at handling any tune. But would tragedy dampen the mood, turning what might have been February’s biggest hip-hop party into a somber tribute?
I was still wondering that upon arrival as I read the message on the venue’s marquee: “Thanks 4 the Music Whitney.” But when the Roots, bolstered this time by two extra keyboardists, took the stage nearly half past 11 p.m., followed by a slew of guests of varying fame, it quickly became clear the event would retain its celebratory tone — both of the imminent ceremony and (briefly) of Houston’s career.
The show began in typical Roots fashion: smooth, ambient jazz jams melded in and out of original tunes along with slightly subdued yet forceful vocal stylings from the group’s MC, Black Thought. That medley, which featured sporadic support from album collaborators Bilal, Dice Raw, Truck North and P.O.R.N., began with the first three consecutive cuts from the Roots’ latest (13th) studio album, Undun: “Dun,” “Make My” and “Walk Alone.” The pace quickened with a few energetic older cuts — 1995′s “Proceed” and 1999′s “Step into the Realm” among the best — before ebbing slightly with the extraordinary, ?uestlove-led jazz-drum freakout “Mellow My Man,” another choice selection from 1999′s Do You Want More???
After that roughly 40-minute warm-up, however, the performance became much less about the Roots as headliners, as a parade of surprise special guests scurried on and off the stage.
That procession began with a nod to old-school Roots fans in attendance via an appearance from former core member Rahzel. He provided a mind-boggling beatbox session that began with a rendition of “Break You Off” — featuring a deep-toned, jump-jazz solo by the group’s only resident brass player, Tuba Gooding Jr. (can you guess what he plays?) — followed by solo executions of Run-D.M.C.’s “Sucker M.C.’s” and his own track, “If Your Mother Only Knew,” complete with vocally produced turntable scratching.
Rahzel held his position on stage but dropped back briefly for a three-song cameo by Jamaican-American singer/rapper Shaggy, who was joined by The Voice winner Javier Colon for run-throughs of ”Boombastic” (off the same-named 1996 Grammy winner for best reggae album), “Angel” and, of course, “It Wasn’t Me.”
If that wasn’t enough of a ’90s throwback, Shaggy’s exit gave way to a brief set from another Grammy-winning Caribbean rapper, Pras Michel. The former Fugees member arrived on stage with an unknown female vocalist (Black Thought had to stop and ask her name) who assisted with Mya’s part on the R&B favorite “Ghetto Superstar (That Is What You Are)” plus snippets of two Fugees covers, “Ready or Not” and “Killing Me Softly.”
Seemingly reinvigorated by such guest contributions, the Roots busted out a few more originals — “The OtherSide,” “Get Busy” (with a coda of Kool & the Gang‘s “Jungle Boogie”) and “The Next Movement” — before introducing the night’s most enchanting artist, India.Arie, whose soulfully spine-tingling vocals filled in perfectly for Erykah Badu‘s portion of “You Got Me.”
Before the massive applause for that diva subsided, the Roots were well into another jam, this time focused on the group’s longtime guitarist, “Captain” Kirk Douglas. Yet, though his pseudo-metallic riffs and rounds of eye-popping hammer-ons no doubt impressed, it was only a precursor to this gig’s most heartwarming moment: a brief tribute to Whitney, led by emerging chanteuse Elle Varner, who (not coincidentally, I’m sure) graduated from NYU’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music in 2008 before landing a contract with RCA last year.
She began with her own single, “Only Wanna Give It to You” (which features J. Cole on record), before absolutely nailing – with the help of thousands of encouraging audience voices — Houston’s Grammy-winning rendition of Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.’s ”Saving All My Love for You.”
Though that tribute was somewhat sobering, the Roots & Co. refused to let the mood drop too sharply. Within seconds of Varner finishing, they were joined by New Orleans-based brass virtuoso Trombone Shorty, who took center stage while Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes took up his left flank, trading rounds of incredible licks and progressions, culminating in a brief, fun-loving flow session from up-and-coming rapper Childish Gambino (aka Community co-star Donald Glover).
That mini-set ended the run of guests for the evening — eclectic, to say the least — but the band was hardly out of steam. They concluded the gig with what has become their traditional neo-soul/funkified medley that ended with the ever-powerful cover of Kool G Rap’s “Men at Work.”
“CAN YOU DIG IT?” shouted Black Thought at the song’s end, his voice resounding sharply off the intimate venue walls. At this point in the Roots’ career, where year after year they’ve pulled off the most amazing sessions with seemingly no boundaries on the type of artists with which they can collaborate (bolstered by three years of such partnering on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), I’d guess his question warrants a fairly unanimous answer: HELL. YES.
Setlist: the 8th annual Roots Jam Session at House of Blues Sunset Strip, West Hollywood, Feb. 11, 2012 (guest stars are in parentheses)
Dun / Sleep (Bilal) / Make My (Bilal) / Walk Alone (Dice Raw, Truck North and P.O.R.N.) / Dear God 2.0 (Bilal) / Lighthouse (Dice Raw) / Quills / Step into the Realm / Proceed / Swept Away / In the Music (P.O.R.N.) / Stomp (P.O.R.N.) / Mellow My Man / Break You Off (Rahzel beatbox and Tuba Gooding Jr. solo) > Rahzel beatbox solo (snippets of Run-D.M.C.’s Sucker M.C.’s and If Your Mother Only Knew) / Boombastic (Shaggy and Javier Colon) / Angel (Shaggy and Javier Colon) / It Wasn’t Me (Shaggy and Javier Colon) / Ghetto Superstar (That Is What You Are) (Pras Michel) / Ready or Not > Killing Me Softly (Pras) / The OtherSide (Bilal and P.O.R.N.) / Get Busy (Dice Raw) > Jungle Boogie (Kool and the Gang cover) / The Next Movement / You Got Me (India.Arie) / Captain Kirk Douglas solo (coda of Sweet Child o’ Mine) / Only Wanna Give It to You (Elle Varner) / Saving All My Love for You (Whitney Houston cover featuring Elle Varner) / Jam session (with Trombone Shorty, Warren Haynes and Childish Gambino) / Thought at Work > How I Got Over > Here I Come > The Seed 2.0 > Move on Up (Curtis Mayfield cover) > Men at Work (Kool G Rap cover)
Photo also by David Hall, for the Register.
More O.C. Nightlife:
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- Remembering Whitney Houston, 1963-2012
- Live Review: Young the Giant impresses at the Wiltern
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- Moonsville Collective takes over ‘Dinner with Dave’
- Video: Le Blorr at King’s Inn at Memphis Cafe
- Slideshow: ‘FIN’ debuts at Hurley’s H Space Gallery
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- ‘The Aquabats! Super Show’ debuts March 3
- Slideshow: OC Music Awards showcase at the Continental Room