If I had received a dollar for every black dude wearing sunglasses onstage at New York’s Highline Ballroom last night, I would have at least three dollars right now, maybe four. As a friend pointed out, “The sun never sets on a badass”—and indeed, the Roots is a big old mob of funky jazztastic hip-hop badasses, so the sun was blazing in that ballroom from the moment Questlove breezed onstage to a rising tide of audible assent from the crowd. He wasn’t one of the guys wearing sunglasses, though.
The Roots started cold and ended hot, easing into one of the first tracks from its upcoming album, undun, without an opener and peacing out without indulging the audience in an encore. Not even one little encore. The show at the Highline was the group’s second show in New York this week and part of a ramp-up series of performances in celebration of its forthcoming album, which tells the tragic story of “Redford Stevens” in something of a hip-hopera. From what it seemed, most or all of the guest emcees who appear on the album made it to the Highline to bring undun to life, making the show a Roots family affair.
The group’s primary concern was undun, but the Roots digressed into a host of other joints. The band interspersed tracks from undun like “Lighthouse” and “The OtherSide” with bouts of meandering jazz and funk classics like Kool And The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” Dice Raw spent some quality time on the mic, going nuts on long, intricate and clear-spoken verses with the cross around his neck swinging. There were about 10 guys onstage at any given time, stirring up funkadelic mayhem that eventually melted the audience’s initial inhibitions with the steam rising from their instruments.
After all, it’s hard not to have fun when the band onstage is clearly tearing it up and loving it. Only a few artists in the group, like Questlove and keyboard player Kamal Gray (who the band referred to as “Gray Anger” and “Mr. Angry”) remained stationed in one place, but those with more portable instruments boogied and horse-played around the stage. Damon Bryson, introduced by the Roots as “Tuba Gooding Jr.,” lugged his gigantic sousaphone all over the stage and eventually into the audience. He synchronized dance moves with guitarist Kirk Douglas, and when he hopped off the stage he parted the crowd like the Red Sea.
At any given time, at least two members of the ensemble were feeding off of each other, building off of each other, egging each other on. Questlove harmonized his beats with his fellow drummer, who had positioned his set to enable eye contact with Questlove at center stage. Mr. Angry engaged Tuba Gooding Jr. in winding solos, allowing the audience to fill the Highline with whoops before collapsing back into a whole-band, full-tilt boogie. By the time the Roots struck a final chord, the crowd had noticeably loosened up—but just as there was no warmup, there was no cool down. The crowd lingered for a minute after the Roots made its goodbyes and “Make My” started up on the house speakers, hoping to get just one little encore, but the Roots wanted to leave it steaming.