Friday, January 30, 2009
Sponsored by Redbull and hosted by Boston MC Akrobatik, this event was a musical clash of the titans: in one corner (or stage, rather), Philly's finest, the legendary Roots crew. Hardest working band in show business, twenty years strong, and by far and wide the best live showmen I have ever witnessed. In the second corner, Brooklyn's own United Colors of Afro-funk, Antibalas. The house band for the musical Fela!, the closest thing to Africa '70 possible, and in Questlove's words, the most "airtight" collective going (I'm almost positive this whole show was his idea too).
Boston's Roxy is relatively tiny, so even though it was sold out and packed, the actual crowd space was intimate. Sandwiched between each band's stage, the crowd whipped around every round to give their full attention to the spotlighted contestants. First was the warm up, fifteen minutes of breakneck jamming: the Roots threw down "Thought @ Work," "Here I Come" and "Game Theory." (As soon as they filed out, I noticed a special guest, though he went unannounced the whole night; holding down the organ front was Randy Watson-er James Poyser, legendary key man behind Al Green's latest, D'Angelo, Erykah, Common and every other Soulquarian production out there.) Then, it was Antibalas' turn: 12 members deep, vocalist/conga man Amayo's face painted and horns blasting. (This was the first time I had seen Antibalas play, and I could not have been more pleased. Cuban, West African, funk, dub, jazz...it's all there, and then some.)
The first round was the "Cover", where the night's DJ threw out a tune and each band had to copy it in their relative style. The theme was TV shows, and it kicked off with a nod to Boston; "Cheers." Then came "The Jeffersons" and "Night Rider" (and I hate to spoil any of this for anyone, but I will just say it early on, none of this was a surprise for either band, I saw the very detailed set list, but who gives a shit, this show ruled and still was filled with improvisation). Then came round two, the "Takeover": each band started their own tune, and the other had to finish it to the best of their musical genre's ability. The Roots gave Antibalas "Star/Response," and Antibalas threw back "Payback Africa," before Black Thought went into his excellent "solo" joint "Please Don't Go." Third round was the "Clash", and the house DJ gave each band a genre they technically are not associated with (although both bands blend and defy genre at all times, incorporating elements from each of these): reggae, jazz and gospel (Poyser killed on the last, his organ is straight up Southern Baptist). The last round was the "Joker", the wild card, where each band brought on a guest of their choosing (and this was where I thought they would acknowledge Poyser's presence to the crowd) and Antibalas brought out Philly's DJ Rich Medina for some spoken word, and the Roots brought out saxophonist Gary Bartz to help out on their show closing "You Got Me" operetta.
The icing on the already epic cake was the finale, where both bands got on one stage (it was some Earth, Wind and Fire shit) and one of Antibalas' guitarists threw down a mean version of Michael McDonald's "What a Fool Believes" as Black Thought laughed and joined in (this is also where Tuba Gooding Jr. picked up Thought's denim jacket and started fanning him with it, James Brown style, and cloaked him with it like a cape), the whole crowd creaming in their yacht rock pants.
Was there a winner? No. Was it the best show I've seen in recent memory? Yes. Are you jealous? You should be.