This week, it was Philly night at the Hollywood Bowl when Christian McBride and The Roots shared the stage. The two have been performing together since their youth in Philadelphia, where McBride and The Roots founders, Questlove and Black Thought, were classmates at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. And at the Hollywood Bowl, on Wednesday night, there were certainly a lot of people sporting Phillies hats and shirts.
Photo by Keith Block
McBride’s big band opened the show. The six-time GrammyÒaward winning bassist may be the busiest jazzman in showbiz. He hosts and produces a weekly nationally-syndicated radio show on Sirius XM, “Jazz Night in America”, is the artistic advisor at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and is the artistic director of the historic Newport Jazz Festival.
With all this going, it is a miracle that he still has time to create and perform music. Yet he does it and he does it a lot. Currently, he is the leader of five groups: his trio Tip City, his quintet Inside Straight, his quartet New Jawn, an experimental group called A Christian McBride Situation and his 18-piece Christian Mc Bride Big Band. Also, he DJs at clubs as DJ Brother Mister.
McBride’s big band kicked off their set with a lively introduction by Cedric the Entertainer then broke into “Shake ‘n’ Blake” off their 2012 GrammyÒwinning album The Good Feeling,followed by tributes to Roy Hargrove (“Roy Allan”) and Cedar Walton (“The Shade of the Cedar Tree”). During these tunes, McBride’s double bass drove the music, but it was tenor sax man Ron Blake who shined during his solos.
The band was then joined by guest vocalist José James who first made a splash with a reworking of John Coltrane’s “Equinox. Recently, he has been touring to promote his amazing tribute to Bill Withers Lean on Me. His baritone and delivery are smooth, and it shocks me to see that voice coming out of a man that looks like Juan Epstein from Welcome Back Kotter(I know I’m dating myself). McBride then switched to electric bass, while James continued with the band for a smoking version of his song “Trouble” from his 2012 album No Beginning No End. But, it was James’s vocal on Bill Withers’s “Just the Two of Us” that really made the crowd roar.
James left to thunderous applause as McBride played a thoughtful version of George Duke’s “Black Messiah Part Two.” During this song, McBride showed why there is no one that can play like him, mixing his big band influences with James Brown soul. McBride is a clear successor to the greatest bass-playing bandleaders (e.g., Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius) who spark their ensembles with their personalities as much as their playing and who inspire through their raw energy and spirit.
Raw energy and spirit are exactly what the legendary Roots Crew brings to every performance. Led by Questlove and Black Thought, The Roots were named “one of the greatest live bands around” by Rolling Stone, and currently serve as the official house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. They have become one of the best known and most respected hip-hop acts in the business, winning four Grammys.
Before the band reached such heights however, they released their 1999 masterpieceThings Fall Apart. The albumwas the band’s fourth release and is often considered their breakthrough album, becoming their first record to sell over 500,000 copies. It also includes the Grammy Award-winning song “You Got Me”.
The Hollywood Bowl performance was a special show to mark the 20th anniversary of the album’s release. Poet and Philly-native Ursula Rucker, who was featured on early Roots albums, came out and performed a lengthy spoken word intro. Then the band came out – three keyboardists, two guys on drum machines, a horn section, a bass player, a guitarist, a drummer, a sousaphone player all led by Black Thought (aka Tariq Trotter) and Questlove (aka Ahmir Thompson).
Things Fall Apartis named after Chinua Achebe’s seminal 1958 novel and, by invoking Achebe’s book, the Roots provided their commentary on the state of hip-hop and their own position within it. In 1999, it felt like rap had fully given in to commercial success over its conscious roots as it entered the “bling era.” Artists like The Roots, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Nas held strong against mainstream rap.
On Things Fall Apart, The Roots put together an album that unfolds in a ceaseless flow with intricate mixes that are not easy to duplicate live. Still Black Thought’s rapid-fire delivery and Questlove’s propulsive drums led a super-charged nonstop 90 minutes of highly enjoyable music. The band was joined by rapper Dice on two numbers, “Ain’t Saying Nothing New” and “Don’t See Us”. Overall, the band did an excellent job of duplicating the classic album live. Sousaphone player Tuba Gooding, Jr. (Damon Bryson) was a joy to watch as he danced around the stage, often with guitarist “Captain Kirk” Douglas. Douglas was given his moment to shine during “You Got Me” when he sang and outright shredded on guitar.
The performance proved that after two decades, Things Fall Apartis still relevant because it is an album which tells the listener that their fear is not unique as it grabs them by the collar and makes them look at the world. And then the music ends. See the Hollywood Bowl website for upcoming performances – https://www.hollywoodbowl.com/