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The Roots Perform in San Francisco -- Photo by Ashleigh Reddy
The Roots Perform in San Francisco -- Photo by Ashleigh Reddy

The Roots Put Hip-Hop On Their Backs In San Francisco [Exclusive Live Photos + Recap]

Photos by Ashleigh Reddy

Words by Paul Clabourne Pennington Jr.

“Cool. Who’s playing tonight?”

“The Roots.”

“Wait...They tour? I love them on Fallon!”

Despite its brevity, this exchange made a bold proclamation on the current reality of hip-hop’s favorite band. I would not call it “harsh,” however, as it’s been anything but. Moving onto the late night scene has catapulted The Roots crew into a mainstream consciousness that had for such a long time escaped them. Justin, the Prius-pushing Lyft driver, didn’t know “75 Bars,” but he absolutely knew the Roots.

That’s the context for the band’s latest show in San Francisco, California. Speaking directly to this was the tapestry of backgrounds on display at the Regency Ballroom. No two people were alike and just about everyone that I met had a different reason for being there. Between references to that “smoothed out, melodic” and “Black Simon & Garfunkel,” I came across a particularly earnest, young woman who simply said, “ I just wanna see what they’ll do.”

Now, I’ve been catching the Roots since I was an undergrad at Penn and the only consistency they’ve maintained is their inconsistency. I kept coming back because I always got something new and this was no exception.

Take for example, “Dynamite!” Like most records in their catalog, it lends itself well to the live space—Black Thought’s effortlessly aggressive flow atop a masterfully organic groove. It’s peak Foundation, but when you get the sampling god, Jeremy Ellis, to freak the ending, it’s like a casual flex on just how deep this collective can go. And the crowd loved it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the tandem of Questlove (whose Prince mugshot shirt was MVP of the night) and Ellis. Carving out their own space within the set, the duo was one of the many great highlights of the night. As Ellis broke down James Brown and Super Mario samples, Questlove bonded it all together with his unique brand of technical acuity. The resulting product was a raucous affair perhaps more relatable to Electric Daisy Carnival than Rock the Bells, but it impressed just the same. Channeling the electronic aesthetic was a clever nod to modernity and touched the bodies of old soul heads and young PLUR proponents alike.

That’s the real secret of any Roots show—highbrow accessibility. It’s a contradiction in terms that I wouldn’t believe had I not been watching it play out over the last decade. When Ellis began to chop up Bill Conti’s indelible theme from “Rocky,” yes, everyone understood and wholly appreciated the reference, but that didn’t take away from the musicality of it all. It was still technical brilliance of the Hip-Hop variety.

Or how about when the crew jumped into “Hotline Bling?” Yes, it’s the pop culture anthem of the day, but the Roots managed to embrace it in a way that wasn’t trite or mocking, but instead inclusive and at the same time structurally sound. Parlaying that sonic meme generator into the classic, “You Got Me,” was a gentle reminder that the Roots can and still do this for the culture.

From there, the band continued its push through seemingly whatever they felt like playing at the time, which included Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and particularly evocative take on the stop-time repetition of Muddy Water’s “Mannish Boy.” Around this point in the show, we got a not-so-gentle reminder of the fact that Captain Kirk Douglas is indeed a verifiable living legend. Lifting his guitar well above his head like a Rock n’ Roll Rafiki, Kirk relentlessly drove his instrument to the edge, missing not a single note in the process.

The most difficult part of being in a collective like the Roots is that you don’t always get the shine that you deserve, but whether it was Tuba Gooding Jr. bopping around stage, sousaphone in hand or James Poyser simply being James Poyser, every single player was highlighted and none took advantage of this more than Kirk.

Speaking to singular successes, the Bay Area warmly embraced the entrance of its native son, Martin Luther, who take the role of Cody Chesnutt on the wildly popular “Seed 2.0.” Delivering a new flavor to the carnal lyricism, it was undeniable a fan favorite.

That was pretty much the show—a lot of random engagement converging for an entertaining night of sweat-inducing sounds. It would have been fairly easy, at this point in their careers, for the Roots to mail this type of gig in, to simply run through the hits. And honestly, we all would have been happy with just that, but fortunately we got a lot more. Whether you’re coming for Fallon or Phrenology, the Roots are still the best show in town.