As you probably already know, SNL alum Jimmy Fallon made his debut Monday night as a late-night talk show host in an attempt to fill departed comic royalty Conan O’Brien’s (figuratively and literally) enormous shoes. The poor dear was clearly dysfunctionally nervous, as evidenced by (figuratively) robotic delivery of the opening monologue and asking his guests (literally) point-blank to do impressions without any semblance of a contextual setup. (Yes, Conan and the random-ass non sequitur were the dearest of friends, but that’s not what was going on in this case.)
Let’s focus instead, then, on the introduction of hip-hop dynamos the Roots to the bandstand in the Max Weinberg Seven role, a bizarre career move which initially left me wondering if instrumental prowess was once again on the way out in hip-hop. No, Weezy’s guitar fetish doesn’t count.
The good news: they nailed it right off the bat, and the opening sequence clearly raised the bar on Conan’s. An apparently-late-for-work Fallon scrambled through the streets of New York trying to outrun a deliciously filthy funk-rock guitar riff that culminated in synchronized yelps from the band members and a wiggle of ?uestlove’s wig. That’s the kind of late night I wanna have; sorry, Pender.
The bad news: Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter still has to sell me on his importance in this context. Granted, he wasn’t half bad as a comic foil, singing Fallon’s Slow-Jam The News bit to a remarkable, er, climax — specifically, with the line “she added an amendment.” (One hopes the genre will change each night, but I guess we have to wait a few more hours to find out.) But despite his front-and-center role with the band for the past 15 years, the fact remains that they’re doing transitional music and intro/outros now — they reportedly worked up 200 microcompositions in preparation for the debut. Unfortunately, a seven second canvas doesn’t give Tariq enough time to drop any coherent grammar, let alone the usual profound lyrical insights. Vicki Randle from the Tonight Show Band might sing Leno out frequently enough, but when guitarist Kevin Eubanks takes the spotlight — that is, most of the time — she plays percussion instead. Black Thought, on the other hand, just stands there looking slick. Can we at least get him some castanets?
Of course, I’m down with any excuse to hear these guys play Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” (or, as I knew it for years, “Regulate“), and although Fallon still needs to defrost a bit, he does deserve a little more time to ease into the role even if his band outpaces him from the get-go. It’s going to be hard to switch back and forth with Craig Ferguson and still catch Late Night’s ad bumpers, but I’m going to give it a shot.