Backpacker rap has experienced something of an identity crisis in the last few years. Artists in its orbit could almost always count on critical success and a healthy cult audience. But when quasi-backpacker Kanye West rocketed to multiplatinum superstardom, he raised sales expectations for newcomers like last year's big backpacker hype, Lupe Fiasco, who couldn't quite live up to such lofty SoundScan hopes. And while Lupe's debut and backpacker journeymen the Roots' album Game Theory both earned plenty of positive reviews in 2006, they found themselves in the surprising position of finishing the year with less in the way of critical acclaim than the drug-slinging rhymes of Clipse and Lil Wayne. But backpacker acts, especially ones affiliated with the Roots' Okayplayer camp, have the kind of following that finds them playing to packed houses regardless of record sales, and the Roots, Lupe Fiasco, and Little Brother rolled into Baltimore March 8 for a show at the Lyric Opera House. The show started early, causing us to miss both of the opening acts. But while we were pretty bummed about missing Lupe--Little Brother, not so much--we still got our money's worth, because the Roots always put on a good, long show. We're talking Springsteen long. And when actually faced with the Roots onstage, it's hard to deny that they're a pretty great band. In the past 10 years, they've settled into a four-man nucleus of MC, drummer, bassist, and keyboardist, adding and subtracting additional musicians along the way. And on this tour, the lineup had expanded to a 10-piece band including a guitarist, an auxiliary percussionist, and a brass section. The horns helped highlight the fact that the Roots frequently come across as more of a funk and soul revue than a hip-hop act--especially with their name flashing in lights above the Lyric's stage. And they certainly embraced the vibe, with frontman Black Thought grunting and shouting out instructions like James Brown. The flashy, jazzy musicianship the band displays onstage, however, is a sharp contrast to the murky, claustrophobic production on the band's best studio albums, Game Theory and 1999's Things Fall Apart. Funkier, more expansive tracks such as "The Love of My Life" and "Long Time" sounded amazing in concert, with Black Thought reciting absent collaborator Peedi Crakk's verse word for word on the latter. But darker, more aggressive material like "In the Music" lost some of its menacing edge in the transition from disc to stage. And then there were arrangements that fell somewhere in between, like the rendition of the band's biggest hit, "You Got Me," wherein drummer ?uestlove played the drum 'n' bass skitter from the album version's outro throughout the whole song. But inevitably, the Roots put on a more exciting, unpredictable show when they're interpreting songs other than their own. They've been incorporating medleys of popular rap tunes into their shows for years, usually the kinds of sample-heavy New York hip-hop that they replicated so beautifully when backing Jay-Z on MTV's Unplugged. This time around, though, they showed their range by mimicking the 808 claps and synth blips of hits by Yung Joc and Mims, aided by percussionist F. Knuckles' digital drum pads. As the show stretched first past the first hour and then the second, the Roots went into straight-up rock mode, jamming on a cover of "Roxanne" complete with ?uestlove doing his best Sting impression. But the performance of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" was the night's big show-stopper, both in the sense of that it was bombastic and in the sense that half the audience took their seats, losing interest almost as soon as it began. Covering "Masters of War" has become something of a cliché since the Iraq war began, with dozens of bands acting like they were the first in the world clever enough to repurpose an old Dylan rant for today's political climate. But the sprawling rendition by a power trio of ?uestlove, the tuba player, and guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas was at least more creative than most, with Douglas singing each verse to a different tune--"The Star Spangled Banner," "Taps," and so on. Douglas joined the band in 2003, emerging as perhaps the most charismatic musician in the Roots' stage show, singing the hook for almost every song that needed one and soloing all over the place. It was a damn good show, but also perhaps not one that you should necessarily feel bad about missing. Odds are the Roots will swing back through town later this year--or next year, and then the year after that--regardless of the critical or commercial fortunes of backpacker hip-hop. When Jay-Z called himself "rap's Grateful Dead," it was a nonsensical boast, but the Roots are earning the title for real. Come to think of it, ?uestlove is starting to look a little like a black Jerry Garcia.

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