There are many angles to take when it comes to the Roots' new job as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. I choose ambivalence, personally. I think Fallon lacks charisma or a compelling sense of humor, to say nothing of his interview skills. I think the band's talents as a house band are unmatched among bands working today--they're the tightest and most versatile around--but they'd be put to better use elsewhere. That being said, this is a band that's been on tour almost nonstop for over a decade, during which they find time to record studio albums that push the genre forward even though they get pretty much zero credit from said genre, not to mention radio. On top of that are staggering side projects, and when they do make it to your town, they always bring their A game, whether it's in Illadel or Amherst, MA. So yeah, they deserve this "break," which requires scare quotes because it's actually a full time job. I'm sure it gives them more time to write, record, produce, whatever it is the guys want to do, and that's great.
From a provincial standpoint, I had a hunch it meant a lot more chances to see the band play live in their new hometown (I guess they take the bus in from the 215 to 30 Rock each day, but still). That hunch was more than confirmed by the 14 (FOURTEEN!) shows the band scheduled at the Highline Ballroom (where for art thou, Wetlands) between March and June. Last night was the second of these shows, and it was truly a jam.
These shows are not your typical Roots show. For one thing, tickets are an incredibly cheap $10. $12.50 after fees. That's on par with going to the movies in New York, so take your pick. On top of that, the venue's relatively tiny. And while the Roots have been shoved in the Jam Band pigeonhole with increasing regularity, their shows are always set listed and tightly composed, even as the band melts face with their solos. Not so at these meandering sets that seem to be headed anywhere and everywhere.
The Jams are exactly what they sound like: the Roots are not playing their hits, or even lesser known album tracks. They're jamming. Maybe they're working on new material, trying it out for a crowd, or maybe they're just having fun. They're bringing out their friends, and they're creating organic experiences that go wherever the musicians want. Two weeks ago, at the first of these Jams, we were treated to guest emcees Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, Dice Raw (I think he's an honorary member at this point), and John Forte, as well as neo-soul cats Chrisette Michelle and Raheem DeVaughn.
This week's show, however, had much less freestyling and a lot more straight up jams, with a ton of vocal performances to make us stand up and take notice. Fellow Soulquarian Bilal came out, and sounded even better live than he does on record. For a blast from the past, we had Corey Glover of Living Colour fame. The band's lineup has been stripped down, with no appearances from percussionist Knuckles or keyboardist Kamal, which is easier to take as studio wizard James Poyser has been sitting in on keys. Last night the group was also joined for a number of songs by members of Afrobeat powerhouse Antibalas. But all of these guests were overshadowed by old timer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who showed the young'ns how a real soul singer performs: she held the audience's rapt attention the whole time she was on stage, departing with the kiss off line "see, grandma can get down too." We also saw all too brief freestyles from Dice Raw, back for more, and DC emcee/Mark Ronson collaborator Wale. The band ended things with an exceedingly long but never boring version of their classic "You Got Me," which drifted into a particularly fun downbeat ska sound and then back to the classic until it deteriorated at the set's end. All I have to say is, there's twelve more of these shows coming up, who knows how many special guests, and tickets are still on sale. Get to it.