Seeing The Roots live in San Francisco

20:56, May 29 2012

We're in San Francisco, we drove down early - me and my brother-in-law - left our families to follow in a couple of days. The plan, originally, was to see The Cult on Sunday night and then The Roots on Monday. I've seen both bands before - but it'll be worth seeing them again. Especially The Roots.

The Cult would have been great - but it was sold out and we'd just got into town, driven down for the show with the lazy attitude that we could buy tickets on the door - that's how it goes at shows in New Zealand (they almost never sell out, people hardly ever rush to buy tickets).

Rather than pay the piper (scalper) we decided to find accommodation and check out the city. It's our loss to not be seeing The Cult - we'll get to The Roots if we can.

It's Memorial Day weekend and it's the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge - we stay in a place that Bukowski might have hacked out a few coughs and poems in 50 years ago. It's not pretty but we'll be out most of the time.

San Francisco is pretty though. Great food, friendly people and we walk about 10km in a zigzag through the city checking out record shops and bookshops, stopping for beers along the way.

We know that The Roots is also sold out at this point, so we're assessing what we might do instead. It would be great to see them - if possible. But we'll find some live music in a club somewhere.

Taxi down to The Regency Ballroom around 8pm - buy two tickets from a scalper outside the door and join the queue. Fifteen minutes later we're in, we've got a beer and The Roots are just about to start. We made it. Easy.

And then, for 90 minutes, The Roots showed - again - why they're about the best live band you could ever hope to see.

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I've told you all about my journey with The Roots' music - and a bit about the band's journey. And having seen the group live twice in New Zealand I was obviously aware of some of what I would get, but this is my first time seeing them since 2006 - since the changes detailed in that post I linked to a couple of lines above: they're now the house-band for the Fallon TV show, there have been more albums - each more sophisticated than the record it follows; collaborations too, further exploration.

But every Roots show is different; the albums exist in their own space - the gig is never about promoting the new record, it's about a party. And what a party we had on Monday night in San Francisco.

Opening with The Beastie Boys' Paul Revere - an obvious tribute given the recent passing of MCA - The Roots moved through fast and furious funk, sprinkling jazz and soul, bashing out big rock sounds too.

It's a unit that can take you from every slick showband feel that the Stax and Motown labels did so well through to the sound of A Tribe Called Quest. It's Prince's band from Sign O' The Times 30 years on - with a facility for more music. Pick a song, any song - these guys will play it. A cliché is applicable here: this is a live jukebox. These guys are that good. And better.

There are so many standout moments, and it only takes about 15-20 minutes, as the band weaves and loops through songs from its own albums as well as snippets of Kool & The Gang's Jungle Boogie and a little Sugarhill Gang, to realise that every band member on stage is a secret weapon. And every song is a show-stopping moment.

This gig is composed of highlights - guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas almost stole the show early on with a vocalese spot duetting with himself a la George Benson - he was Lionel Loueke one minute, then he was Carlos Santana. Next thing he's out from the microphone rushing back and forth across the stage while playing, the guitar being strangled; Eddie Hazel is back and the band turns into Parliament-Funkadelic in support. Eddie Hazel becomes Eddie Van Halen and it's from clips of funk and jazz and a soulful slideshow to two-hand tapping fury.

Near the end of this stunning guitar showcase, Douglas cranks out the oily riff to Guns 'N Roses' Sweet Child O' Mine and rips out a verse - the band rushing along behind, now not only the greatest funk/soul/hip-hop act you could see but a committed (and devastatingly good) rock band too.

But Douglas's moment was in the end just one of many.

Sousaphone player Damon Bryson (aka "Tuba Gooding Jr") locked into an improvised duet with the keys, his horn a giant dancing sunflower, bopping and diving as the big brass parps punctuated vocal tones from the synth. When he wasn't lugging the sousaphone around the stage Bryson was dancing, working a support-role as a hype-man.

Same deal with percussionist F. Knuckles - clipping out sharp bongo accents to mark the groove but also working the crowd in the spaces when needed. The band so constantly whipping the audience into a frenzy.

There was a song from latest album, undun. There was a song from How I Got Over and the group picked off the near-hits the casual fans expect (You Got Me - with Douglas covering for Erykah Badu or Jill Scott, The Seed 2.0 with its infectious guitar line). There are tunes you will almost always hear The Roots play - such as Break You Off from 2002's Phrenology - but it's different every time. It writhes and wriggles, the group holding on to it for just long enough, the moments before it escapes and runs off into Sly & The Family Stone or spins from reggae through to disco.

At the back - but also front and centre if that makes sense - is Questlove. It's as though he's driving a tractor as much as he is sitting behind a drum-kit; it feels as though the sticks are glued to his hands, there's never a thought that he will drop a stick or miss a beat - such a glorious bass-drum sound, every shot on the snare a crack that sizzles down the back of the neck. The perfect marking of the pulse.

The best thing about the gig? Well there was no one best thing - it was in itself just about the greatest live show I've ever seen, on a completely different level from the two gigs I had seen by The Roots before - but the thing I really liked was watching the band go all James Brown with its sound and its show, false-endings, dramatic reprisals, the cauldron of funk being stirred on, swirling through decades and genres, eras and styles - and then: no encore.

They killed us. It was perfect. The audience needed to submit - we'd been knocked out. And so The Other Side from the undun album blasted out through the speakers and the band waved, drumsticks were hurled and audience members rushed for set-lists and picks and the usual ephemera.

But there was no feeling of being ripped off for not seeing an encore; we'd had the curtain-call as part of the main act. And that was all that was needed.

We were now on the other side. The music told us if we didn't know and feel it already. The gig was done. They'd done (more than) enough.

I loved that aspect so much. An encore would have cheapened the extraordinary show I'd seen and heard - would have made it, somehow, ordinary. Or closer to it.

Postscript: We head out from the show in search of more to do and see and drink and hear and remember that, earlier in the day, we'd seen a sign saying DJ Questlove at The Independent. It had seemed a possibility at one stage, then not so much. Now it seems it is absolutely the thing to do. When will this happen again, right?

So it's a $10 cab across town after a quick bite and a drink and then we're in a wee club just as the crowd cheers enough to sound out that the guy who's just slammed the kit for 90 minutes is about to honour the other half of his double-duty for the evening.

"I'm gonna do something a little different tonight," Questlove announces, standing behind his Mac and decks. "A tribute to one of the greatest groups in hip-hop and to my friend MCA."

For two hours he spliced and diced choice Beastie Boys cuts and then it was something near to 3am. And then it was time to realise that I needed a blog for you all. And then it was time to head back to the cheap and crusty, super-fusty motel room for a handful of hours before another day exploring San Francisco. And that part is now. While you're reading this. All the while - and for days to come - I'll still be processing what I saw: one of the best live gigs I could ever hope to see. And so far - by some way - the best DJ set I've ever witnessed. It was more than the perfect encore.

Not my footage - but here's a YouTube from the gig I was at to give you a brief taste.

Are you a fan of The Roots? Were you at the San Francisco gig perhaps? And if not and you've read this far, tell me about a gig that you saw by chance while overseas and away from home.

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