The Roots Pull Off Unique Performance Art Listening Party In NYC
I hate the word unique, but I have never seen anything like what The Roots pulled off last night at Joe's Pub in New York City. In front of a small, select gathering of people that included journalists (including Toure), label and publishing executives and industry tastemakers, the hardest working band in show business were presenting an event that was billed as half Roots show, half album-inspired performance art, leaving those milling about the theater's lobby beforehand a little confused as to what they were getting themselves into. It turned out different than anyone could have expected—even people from their own record label.
The band's 11th album, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is their second concept album in a row after 2011's undun, and they set out to represent visually at the theater what they had set out to create musically on the album. The problem was, nobody had really heard the album yet, and conceptual performance art—while visually entertaining and definitely engrossing—isn't always the best way to convey a complex idea. The show opened with a hooded Black Thought alone at a microphone, a five-piece orchestra behind him and Questlove above in the back in front of a set of turntables; shortly after he began a spoken word poetry section, what must have been 1,000 balloon animals fell from the ceiling—which, on closer inspection, also had nooses hanging from it—and the show really began.
Interpretive dancing through the balloons gave way to a back-and-forth between Rahzel the human beatboxer and another man alternately playing a trombone and didgeridoo, which creating a very cool, if extremely spooky, dynamic. The fact that the performance was interspersed by the occasional popping of balloon animals as they were stepped on—honestly, they were absolutely everywhere—added a further bizarre aspect to the performance; they could sound like gunshots at different times, and the performance played into that.
The show could probably be broken up into three different parts, in retrospect, though as it was unfolding it was difficult to really understand what the hell was going on. The first section, with interpretive dance and the beatbox/didgeridoo show, was followed by another spoken word piece from Black Thought, who would disappear backstage in between his moments of poetry. The second section was both much more musical and much more weird, with MPC solos, chilling interludes from the orchestra, which also included two vocalists, and occasional forays into hip-hop drums, during which Quest would drop songs from the new album.
The songs themselves sounded fantastic—the album is set to drop May 19, and is streaming today—but the third act was a return to the interpretive dance of the first, although more apocalyptic. The performance was ambitious but for the most part confusing in every way; there's a strong probability that with repeated listens to the album, the entire show will make a lot more sense, because for the majority of the night it was like following someone on a journey and trying to grasp meaning in every aspect of the trip, only to have the entire point remain largely elusive. Even the end didn't totally make sense, although it was stunning and easily the highlight of the performance. The Roots' Captain Kirk emerged from backstage with his guitar in tow to pour his entire heart and soul into the guitar solo from Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain," one of the most emotional songs in the history of recorded music. Kirk did the damn thing justice, and before the crowd could recover, it was over, and balloon animals were being passed throughout the crowd.
If you were looking for anything resembling an album listening party, a hip-hop show, or a typical industry event, this was not it. What it was remains to be clear, but it's certain now that, for better or for worse, there is no limit to where The Roots will let their creativity take them. And that can't be a bad thing in the end.