Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner
As the Roots slowly adjust to their new day job accompanying Jimmy Fallon and New York-centric lifestyle, their bi-weekly residency at the Highline Ballroom, "The Jam", has become an unpredictable yet approachable setting to see the group in its element… at least elements of the group. This evening found only Black Thought, ?uestlove -- the mainstays of the group -- and bass player Owen Biddle leading an open mic night of sorts.
The late night set consisted of dozens of young, fledgling musicians sharing the stage with their musical heroes (many gave personal shout outs to the group and/or ?uestlove). It was unclear whether they were all alumni of the same performing arts academy as the Roots themselves (Philadelphia's High School for Creative and Performing Arts) or just an assortment of their favorite up and coming rappers, vocalists, guitarists, horn players, and percussionists. Regardless, the sell out crowd was supportive and encouraging of the raw talent making its rounds on stage.
However the real story of the night was the stellar rhythm section holding the jam session together -- that the Roots are one of music's best rhythm sections should surprise no one. Naturally de facto music director of the Roots, ?uestlove, was at the helm, micromanaging the shuffling list of musicians from behind his drum kit and also calling out changes and key signatures to the other players. His ambidexterity is awesome, but his real talent is his ability in seamlessly transitioning and transposing multiple musical epochs into one fluid jam. He does it every night and I suspect his work on Late Night is only improving this skill. Along with ?uestlove, the celebrated songwriter and keyboard player James Poyser played back up. Perfectly in sync with ?uestlove the presence of Biddle, on six-string bass, rounded out the extremely adaptable and agile rhythm section.
Given that the Lonely Island (Andy Samberg’s comedy group) had performed on Late Night the previous evening, I was holding out hope that their collaboration with the Roots would spill over into the Highline gig. The band's ephemeral sets are just another reason to keep coming back for more.