Grammy Awards: The Roots jam on with Chaka Khan, Too Short, Taj Mahal and more
About two years ago, the Roots made the somewhat head-scratching creative decision to take a steady gig as Jimmy Fallon's house band. It was a decision that frontman Black Thought proudly acknowledged as the venerable Philadelphia crew rocked the Music Box in Hollywood till the early hours Sunday at their seventh-annual Roots Jam.
Where it inevitably made dollars and (fiscal) sense, the gig seemed as though it would effectively end the group's roughly 20-year run as a dynamic recording outfit. Instead, the countless hours of rehearsal time and being forced regularly into close quarters galvanized its members as a unit. Last year's "How I Got Over," was the Roots' strongest effort since 1999's "Things Fall Apart," and netted them a Grammy nomination for rap album -- to add to the three they got for "Wake Up!," a collaborative album with John Legend. On Sunday night, "Wake Up!" took all three of those awards: R&B album, traditional R&B vocal performance for "Hang On in There" and R&B song for "Shine."
So, the seventh-annual Roots Jam had an even more celebratory vibe than in previous years. The group moved the venue from the Key Club to the Music Box, and with it, a larger crowd that continued to pour in past 2 a.m. as the Roots jammed on. In an almost self-effacing decision, the jams have historically featured the Roots playing other people's songs, and at times, it felt like guests were watching the world's greatest wedding band with the most expensive guest stars that money could buy.
The event kicked off with Fallon doing a spot-on cover of Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair," as performed by Neil Young. What followed was an all-star lineup that not even the producers of "Glee" could've wrangled.
Too Short delivered an energetic rendition of "Blow the Whistle." Chaka Khan dropped by to croon "Tell Me Something Good." Bobby McFerrin scatted onstage, and Taj Mahal, Betty Wright and Booker T. Jones all stopped by at various junctures. Befitting their hip-hop roots, the crew brought local rapper Blu, Philly hotshot Young Chris and Pennsylvania rapper Asher Roth.
Though Legend was conspicuously absent, the Roots managed to get nearly every other R&B star under the age of 35, including Ryan Leslie, Estelle, Sara Bareilles, Ne-Yo and Melanie Fiona. Throughtout the show, the Roots interspersed with occasional cuts from their catalog, including their biggest hit, "You Got Me." Indeed, if there was a salient downside to the night, it was that the Roots essentially ignored most of their greatest hits material, opting inside to play session men for a parade of stars.
But as far as session men go, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better unit, with guitarist "Captain" Kirk Franklin letting loose soaring guitar solos that lived up to the astral intent of his name. A horn section made up of Trombone Shorty and Tuba Gooding Jr. added a jazzy euphoria to the event. And, of course, focal points Black Thought and drummer Questlove kept things loose and funky.
It was another memorable night that added to the group's already estimable legacy. If you've got $100,000 to spare, you may want to look into booking them for your reception.
-- Jeff Weiss
Top photo: Jimmy Fallon performs with the Roots at the 7th annual Roots Jam at the Music Box on February 12, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Toby Canham/Getty Images.
Bottom photo: Too Short performs with the Roots crew at the Jam Session. Credit: Toby Canham/Getty Images.