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Monday, July 2, 2012

The Roots @ Miller Lite Oasis, Summerfest

June 30, 2012

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It's a little hard to believe that it's only been three years since The Roots, one of the most acclaimed hip-hop acts in the world, became the house band on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," then a new and unproven chat show. At the time it was a perplexing move for the group, but now their presence just feels natural. It helped that NBC's disastrous handling of Conan O'Brien's tenure on "The Tonight Show" soon provided bigger things to talk about, but even so, any cries of "sellouts" or questions about their motivations faded fast, since it quickly became apparent that the band signed on for television for the same reason they play any other show: They can't resist a gig. Before they could be seen every weeknight on TV, the Philadelphia outfit toured with a vengeance, practically nonstop since their inception in the early '90s, and even now they cram as many dates as possible into weekends and summer hiatuses. Put succinctly, they're seasoned professionals, which is why it was so frustrating to hear how bad they sounded here.

It wasn't their fault, of course. What managed to make it through the speakers was funky and on point, but it wasn't the whole picture. While it varied slightly depending on where you were standing and the whims of the sound guy, the entire show was, in a manner of speaking, all bap and no boom. Rap concerts are often drowned in bass, to the detriment of vocals and melody, but tonight it was the opposite: tinny and one-dimensional. If you were a determined optimist, you might point out that, at least, you could clearly hear just about every word uttered by MC Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, including the frequent freestyles, but whatever your philosophical inclination, when ?uestlove is on the drums, you want to feel those bass kicks in your chest, lyrics be damned. Things were particularly rough for sousaphonist Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson; at times you would see him projected on the giant screens that flank the stage, blowing like his life depends on it, and barely hear anything at all.

Material wise, though there were a number of pleasant digressions including "The Next Movement" from 1999's Things Fall Apart and the title track from 2010's How I Got Over, the focus seemed to be on last year's loose concept album Undun. That's all well and good, but considering they found time to toy with Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine," Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" and Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" among other quotations, they could have included a few more of their own classics. But that's just quibbling really, not meaningful criticism (their cover of Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up" was pretty damn good after all). On the whole, there was absolutely nothing wrong with what they brought to the stage, only with how it was translated to the audience. Their strengths managed to shine through, at least somewhat, but it just goes to show that even experienced veterans like The Roots can be hamstrung by someone else's failings behind the board.
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