On Friday, the Roots opened their co-headlining tour with Gym Class Heroes at Baltimore's Ram's Head Live, testing their rep as the best live act in hip-hop with a jam-laced set short on hits and heavy on mind-numbing instrumentals and off-the-wall covers. As the 24-date tour works its way around the country, the band will learn whether or not its loyal fans — some of who were spotted in Baltimore wearing "?uestlove for Prez" T-shirts — will follow as they shift from their trademark hip-hop-soul to something closer to a darker Phish with only slightly more rapping.
U.K. soul star Estelle opened with a short set bookended by her hits "Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)" and "American Boy." Between songs, she quipped endearingly about the state of global affairs and offered some advice: "Life is short. The end is near. Have Sex." Hip-hop's emo-hippies Gym Class Heroes, up next, offered a high-energy set with some goofy stage patter — at one point lecturing on the power of love and asking everyone to hug their concert neighbors — and a couple of surprisingly deep musical interludes.
They opened with the radio hit "Clothes Off!" on which guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kosongo (or, as frontman Travis McCoy called him, "Chocolate Genius") lit into his first of a couple deft solos on the night. By way of charming the locals, McCoy then turned to his bandmates and asked, "Is Omar coming?" Met with quizzical looks, he shook his head. "Damn," he said. "Am I the only one that watches The Wire?" McCoy crooned a section of Sam Cooke's "Cupid" before the band launched into their other mega-hit, "Cupid's Chokehold" mid-set. Playfully ruling the room, McCoy referenced girlfriend Katy Perry, who he said makes him want "jump up and down on a couch on Oprah" and encouraged everyone to vote and support Obama, asking "Am I the only one who thinks McCain is too old for this fucking job?" After dedicating "Live a Little" to DJ AM and Travis Barker and reprising Estelle for their collab "Guilty as Charged," from the band's new album, Quilt, they closed out the set with a surprising — and surprisingly faithful — rendition of the Zombies' "Time of the Season" and their latest single, "Cookie Jar."
The Roots came onstage before a giant backdrop featuring the chorus to "Criminal" from their recent album Rising Down ("And I can see it's all about cash/And they got the nerve to hunt down my ass/And treat me like a criminal") and a fuzzy portrait that may have been John McCain with a giant slash across it. They launched into a instrumental grounded by new member Tuba Gooding Jr. (who actually plays a sousaphone), before launching into "Rising Up" from the new album. On cuts like "Star," from The Tipping Point and "Long Time" from Game Theory, the club's sound system buckled of the weight of the band's dense instrumental interludes, often led by guitarist Kirk Douglass (who has played with the Dave Matthews Band).
After a drum circle, during which band members gathered around drummer/bandleader Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's kit to make some cosmic cacophony, they launched into the set's centerpiece, a massive, half-hour long "You Got Me," with extensive noodly guitar and bass solos, and interpolated covers of Gn'R's "Sweet Child of Mine," Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" and Lil Wayne's "Lollipop." For a dozen minutes at a time, MC Black Thought was left to wander around the stage, smiling oddly, as the crowd wondered when they might hear another verse. Afterward, Thompson reminded everyone to vote: "It's your responsibility to conduct your government," he said, and and the band launched into "Criminal," a relatively straightforward version of "The Next Movement" and a double-time "The Seed." In Baltimore, the crowd included enraptured members of the Roots' base constituency, but more than a few swing voters who were ready to jump ship. We'll wait for national results to see if America is ready for the Roots' brand of Change.
"Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)"
"No Substitute Love"
"More Than Friends"
"1980" (featuring Travis McCoy)
"Pretty Please" (Love Me)
Gym Class Heroes:
"Peace Sign/Index Down"
"The Queen and I"
"Shoot Down the Stars"
"Blinded by the Sun"
(medley of songs from Papercut Chronicles)
"Live a Little"
"Viva La White Girl"
"Drnk Txt Rmeo"
"Sloppy Love Jingle Part 3"
"Guilty as Charged" (featuring Estelle)
"Time of the Season"
"Get Busy" (featuring Dice Raw)
"Step Into the Realm"
"Mellow My Man"
"You Got Me"
"The Next Movement"