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I imagine Jay Craven is breathing a very heavy sigh of relief today. Last night, the first show of the Queen City Concert Series — Philadelphia's proud hip-hop purveyors The Roots — went off with nary a hitch. The weather cooperated, the talent put on a great show, and most concert-goers managed to keep it together. No one teetered into the lake and no major brawls erupted. And thank golly for that. I didn't want to have to use my fearsome karate moves on any jerks who got out of line, and I sure as heck didn't want to go diving into the lake to pull out some hapless drunk.
But seriously, the whole event was pretty seamless. The venue, with the stage facing the lake, allowed people to celebrate Champlain (the lake, not the dude) in their own way — by dancing badly lakeside while belting out hip-hop lyrics. Well, at least that's what I was doing.
I have to give it to the organizers. The stage looked pro, the sound was crisp (unless you were in front of those monster hanging speakers, in which case all you could hear was the sound of your own auditory system breaking down), the vending options were tasty, the beer lines were short, and, luckily for all the oldsters in attendance, the riff-raffery was kept to a minimum.
The scene was something, and I'm not just saying that because I'm feeling bereft of adjectives today. It really was interesting. There were floppy-haired young professionals in Nantucket reds and boating shoes weaving in between crowds of dready, barefoot white kids and the occasional person of color. Predictably, the crowd was mostly college-aged folks of no color. And that's cool. Because I was once a college-aged folk of no color pumping my fists at hip-hop shows (Blackalicious and the Pharcyde, anyone?). Even my old boss at Camp Free Press was there last night. Who knew Midwestern newspaper publishers were into the Roots? Takes all kinds.
I can't say enough about the Roots' performance. I'm no music critic or anything, but I've been to my share of shows, so I feel comfortable offering my assessment of the show. And here it is: They had me at the sousaphone. They could have been playing polka and I would have loved it for the simple fact that they incorporated a sousaphone into their live show. And not just any sousaphone, but a sousaphone played by the exuberant "Tuba Gooding Jr.," who could get his serious step dance on with this mammoth piece of brass hanging over his shoulder and torso.
If I had to sum up the Roots in one made-up compound musical adjective, I'd call them "jamhop." Not that they sound like a masturbatory jam band, but because they play without stopping. Normally I stop listening to a song after four or five minutes. If you can't get your point across in that amount of time, it's probably not a point I'm interested in digesting. But the Roots flowed from one song to the next in what amounted to a two-hour medley. They played everything from Michael Jackson to Fela Kuti, Black Sabbath to Guns 'n Roses, Led Zeppelin to George Thoroughgood. And they played plenty of their own original songs.
The highlight of the evening had to be when ?uestlove, the rotund and slightly menacing drummer and DJ for the band, trundled out on stage and started throwing autographed drumsticks into the audience. Now, I never catch anything thrown from a stage. I actually repel stuff like that. But this time, ?uestlove looked right at me and with his mind told me he was going to pitch me a stick. I readied myself for the booty. As it flew in the air, I reached up and grasped. The stick bounced out of my sweaty mitts and onto the ground. I immediately dropped to my knees to pounce on the stick, as did my two other friends standing next to me. Some dude reached out his big sneaker and covered the stick with his foot as the three of us got our hands on it. The littlest among us gave the besneakered fellow a gentle shove and we came up with the bounty. The wee one, it was decided, should keep the drumstick because she showed the most courage in retrieving the flipping thing.
After the drumstick melee of 2009, Jay Craven, decked out in a sport coat and loafers, took the mic and thanked the "famous" Roots and the crowd and plugged the next show — Tony Bennett at the Flynn Theater. By that time, everyone was making their way out of the park, and those who were still milling about were scratching their heads, saying, "Tony who?" One show down, six to go. Good luck and godspeed.
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