Live: The Roots Play To The Crowd At Astoria's New Outdoor Venue
Wednesday, May 4
Better Than: Whatever '90s cover band was playing elsewhere in Astoria.
An hour into the Roots' Wednesday night show, located at the Astoria beer garden Studio Square, Black Thought finally got the crowd to sing along. The trouble was, the song the assembled were singing wasn't one by his band: it was "Sweet Child O' Mine." Welcome to a Roots show, where one of the best bands in America routinely defer to the crowd and play their favorites-even if those favorites were written by someone else. Over the course of their lean, airtight and occasionally heart-stopping 90-minute set, the Roots leavened fragments of their own songs with healthy helpings of familiar anthems like "Rock & Roll, Part II," "Immigrant Song," and-worse-"Bad to the Bone." It's been said that Springsteen structures his shows like novels, but the Roots lay theirs out like dreams or drug trips: familiar fragments surface and recede, held together by endless, hazy instrumental passages. They seem to be constantly auditioning for the role of America's House Band, which means that creating an atmosphere of good times and good vibes is generally more important than playing songs in their entirety.
That the Roots were playing Studio Square at all speaks to the current, uncomfortable transformation Astoria has been struggling through. Gradually, a landscape once given over to a slew of mediocre diners and dance clubs blasting tinny Eurohouse has made room for the occasional gastropub or nouveaux burger joint. While many welcome the changes, there's still a strange, lingering resistance, which you can see it if you spend any length of time on sites like Why Leave Astoria or the message board Astorians.com. While both sites are absolute assets to anyone looking to navigate an area of the city routinely neglected by much major media, anything that smacks even remotely of Brooklyn-or, more broadly, seems to have ambitions or ideas that are slightly outside-the-box-tends to be regarded with suspicion.
Occasionally it gets personal: I'm a resident of nearly six years who regularly sticks up for my neighborhood in conversations with friends, yet just this past weekend while at my favorite local bar I found myself on the defensive against an Astorian who drunkenly ran through a fairly vicious laundry list of assumptions he'd made about my personality based solely on the type of glasses I was wearing. (I wish I could say it was the first time that had happened.) As confrontations go, it's unbelievably minor, but it underscores a point: a whole lot of people in Astoria regularly treat anything that falls under some inchoate definition of "hipster" with the same level of derision and exclusion they wrongfully imagine takes place in Brooklyn all the time.
Which-and aren't you glad you waited that out?--provides a convenient parallel to the Roots' career arc. Until they scored the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon gig, they were more or less a cult act, one regarded with either indifference or wariness by the mainstream. They spent the better part of the '00s turning out a string of forward-thinking, sonically adventurous hip-hop records that fretted and panicked and groaned; they greeted the present age with an attitude of finely honed skepticism and got their titles from books by Malcolm Gladwell.
Fucking hipsters, right?
Their perch on late-night television has significantly upped their profile, but it's important to remember that just three short years ago, ?uestlove was stopped at an airport by a particularly nasty DEA agent who openly mocked his insistence that he was in a Grammy-winning hip-hop group by demanding he produce a picture of himself in Rolling Stone as proof.
So if the Roots want to cover "Move on Up" instead of playing "False Media," who's to blame them? The arrangements were mostly lean Wednesday night, relying on crackling percussion and Black Thought's gruff, raspy voice. When they deigned to play complete originals, they were spectacular: the elastic guitar that powers "The Seed 2.0" came off like a taunt, and the imposing "Get Busy"-which boasts the fantastic stare-down "My squad's half Mandrill, half Mandela"-felt as irritable and malicious as a newly sober gym teacher. The jammy passages felt like they were losing the plot-I'm not sure how many concerts require both a bass and a sousaphone solo-but the crowd didn't seem too upset. Near the end of the show, they produced a lithe, simmering Afrobeat number that allowed Black Thought to rhapsodize about the influence and inspiration of Fela Kuti. It's hard to tell how many people were paying attention, but that almost didn't matter--that he took the time to do it was enough.
Critical bias: The Roots are one of my favorite bands of all time, and I think their last four records (John Legend collabo aside) rank alongside Fear of a Black Planet and There's A Riot Goin' On.
Overheard: "Woooo!!!! ENCORE!!!!!" "Dude, it's only the second song."
Random notebook dump: As it turns out, Studio Square is a surprisingly great place to see an outdoor show. Its ample patio provides plenty of room for the audience to mill about without feeling fenced in, the sound was crisp and precise and there didn't appear to be a single obstructed sightline in the whole place. That said, I cannot believe how drunk Astorians get on a Wednesday night.