The Roots have been playing together for over 20 years—rapper Black Thought and drummer Questlove formed the group in 1992. But when they hit the stage, it’s like they just discovered how cool performing for a live audience is. They smile giddily, they giggle to each other, they jump up and down with instruments in hand. They’re doing what they want to do—and, lucky for audiences, what they want to do is wildly entertaining.
The band took the stage at New York’s Best Buy Theater Thursday to celebrate Guitar Center’s 50th anniversary, kicking off their set with a rousing performance of “Table Of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)” off their 1999 album Things Fall Apart. Sousaphonist Tuba Gooding Jr. kicked up his knees and marches across the stage as he played, often looking like he’d been transported from a 4th of July parade, and Black Thought bounced around as he rapped, addressing the audience but also sneaking glances at his bandmates every so often—ah, to be serenaded by Black Thought on a nightly basis.
They threw it back even further for their second song, 1996′s “What They Do,” a mellow track that Black Thought interrupted to give a shout-out to longtime Roots manager Richard Nichols, who died in July. “I had a dream that Rich Nichols came by the studio the other night,” Black Thought said. “That’s what’s up.” J Dilla, who died in 2006, also got a mention—The Roots worked with the hip-hop producer and released the 2010 mixtape Dilla Jawns in his honor.
Even when the band was paying tribute to the deceased, the mood was still high. All seven instrumentalists, including two keyboardists and two drummers, played on as Black Thought rapped over them, almost as if this seemingly spontaneous moment were planned. But that can be said for any moment of a Roots show: Between their many live gigs and their residency at Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, these guys are, without exaggeration, constantly playing together. Either they have their performance down to a science or they’re just so comfortable with one another that suddenly dancing in sync to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is natural for them.
After spending some time on more rap-inclined tracks, they shifted to a medley of rock songs including Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” The stage became a groovy jam session—and the highlight of the show. Covers of popular songs are always fun to hear, but what makes The Roots’ covers so special is that they instill their own style into each of them: On Thursday, Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” became chaotic and adopted some reggae stylings in The Roots’ hands, and “Bad to the Bone” rocked harder and transformed into something bluesier than George Thorogood’s version.
Then came the part of the show where the instrumentalists got to show off, and show off they did: “Captain” Kirk Douglas’ guitar solos proved so mesmerizing that when he later took off his electric guitar and raised it to the sky as if it were baby Jesus, the crowd roared with enthusiasm.
The band’s hype man came out for the last few songs, including the popular “The Seed 2.0.” When he wasn’t jumping up and down, encouraging the audience to join him, he stood just inches from Black Thought’s face as the frontman rapped so fast it was hard to decipher what exactly he was rapping. At one point, they took a break from rapping to dance the Soulja Boy together in a moment that beamed pure joy.
Black Thought has a habit of saying “thank you!” a lot, misleading many audience members into thinking that the set is over… until they launch into another song, and then another. If it weren’t The Roots, this might be annoying. But it is The Roots, and it’s a gift.
The last minutes were filled with energy and excitement—smiles all around, lots of jumping up and down, some more group dancing. Once the curtain finally (literally) closed and the lights went up, it was as though everyone had just woken up from the loudest, most entertaining dream of their lives. And, in a way, they had.