Becoming Unwritten: The Roots at the 9:30 Club

If NBC ever releases a compilation of The Roots’ performances as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the DVD commentary track might make your player explode. The veteran Philly hip-hop band won’t finish a tune without referencing pieces of nine others. Their hyperlinked performance style is reliably thrilling, though you do sometimes want to yell at song-surfing bandleader/drummer/Twitter addict Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, “Hey, I was digging that!”

Last night, at the first of two 9:30 club dates, The Roots offered a sweaty, channel-flipping blitz, packing about eight hours of mercilessly funky rap, rock, go-go, jazz, and soul into 140 breathless minutes. Though they’ve continued to tour since they got their gig upstaging SNL alum Fallon, their return to the 9:30 still had a celebratory, school’s-out vibe.

An early performance of “How I Got Over,” the brassy title cut from their upcoming album, rocked the house so hard that MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter shouted “Thank you, goodnight!” when it was done. But there were two hours and several guest appearances — chiefly Wale, who took video of the crowd with a Flip camera while trading verses with Trotter on “Rising Up” and his own “Pretty Girls” — to go.

The reference-spotting was fun for a while. (“Hey, isn’t keyboardist Kamal Gray playing the vamp from The Beatles’ ‘Hey Bulldog?’,” etc.) Eventually you just quit keeping score and surrendered to the towering, serpentine groove, one that rarely slackened despite the concert’s length.

The Roots’ discography, though admirable, has rarely captured their onstage range and urgency, and the show leaned almost as heavily on those schizo references as on the Roots own material. Guitarist/singer “Captain” Kirk Douglas’s hijacked the show with suite that touched on “Sweet Child O’ Mine”,” “Mannish Boy,” “Who Do You Love,” and “Immigrant Song,” among others.

The Roots already provide the most amusing bits on “Late Night,” but there’s at least one traditional wee-hours-chat-show game you can bet they won’t be playing: Stump the band. This band, it don’t stump.

This review appears today on Click Track and in tomorrow’s Paper of Record. Thanks to the great and good Kyle Gustafson for the photo.

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