Concert Review: The Roots in NYC. Three hours of special guests and extended jams by Philly's stalwarts makes a crowd less grateful than deadened

By Ryan Dombal
Updated May 25, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Nas and the Roots: Stephen Lovekin/

The Roots at N.Y.’s Radio City Music Hall

The Roots
Radio City Music Hall, New York City
May 18, 2006

Fourteen years into their career, Philadelphia’s the Roots are still Hip-Hop’s Best Live Band. The title comes largely by default. Though each of the group’s skilled members has chops for days — usually proven by way of endless jam-band solos in concert — in the two-turntables-and-a-microphone world of rap, their seemingly distinguished designation can be underwhelming, akin to The World’s Best Prop Comedian, or The Fastest Octogenarian On Earth. Their shows are marathon endurance tests not only for the band, but also for the audience: long on tight grooves but short on memorable, worthwhile songs. Luckily, this special gig — the first of a two-night stand at the majestic, hip-hop-phobic Radio City Music Hall — featured several boldfaced guests to mix up the Roots’ monotonous moves. Though showing much promise initially, the three-hour event eventually devolved into a rote Roots by-the-numbers exhibition.

Announced guests for the show included Nas, Common, and Talib Kweli; loquacious Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson all but guaranteed even more surprises in interviews leading up to the show. So, as much as it was a showcase for diverse artists, all the self-inflicted preshow hype turned the concert into a strange guessing game as well, with fans trying to peep backstage and predict which hip-hop star would make a cameo. And, unfortunately, the ”what’s next” factor often overshadowed what was happening onstage.

Not to say the concert was a complete wash. It got off to a tremendous start when, early on, NYC’s own Nas got the crowd out of their seats with a raucous take on his hit ”Made You Look.” The rapper’s jazzier early material lent itself well to the Roots’ live-band treatment, and his set, albeit too quick, seemed like a beacon of great things to come. Alas, it was to be the night’s best moment.

The only unannounced headline-worthy artist, old-schooler Big Daddy Kane, followed and proved that he’s one of the few ’80s MCs who can still provide thrills rather than pure nostalgia — even with a faulty mic and an off-putting bass-heavy mix. But after an extended stint from the reliable, energetic Common, who leaned heavily on tracks from last year’s Be, the excitement level took a palpable downturn and would not recover for the remainder of the show. After an annoying, lackluster appearance from Kweli, the final half of the concert was dominated by solos from Roots stalwarts, from guitarist Kirk Douglas’ cartoonish Santana-isms to bassist Hub’s P-Funk poaching to beat-box originator Rahzel’s quick-fizz mouth theatrics. Pushed along by the unspectacular workmanlike raps of the group’s MC, Black Thought, the show finally ended at 11 with Dave Chappelle coming out of the wings to exclaim, ”The Roots sell out motherf—ing Radio City, ladies and gentleman!” a few times and then walking back off. It was a fitting cap to a night that held great promise but mostly failed to deliver.