Live: The Roots Play To The Crowd At Astoria's New Outdoor Venue

roots.jpg
The Roots
Studio Square
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.

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8 comments
pschase
pschase

Hipsters and Astoria aside ( subjects totally worth further discussion, in light of NYC's quirky population shifts ), I feel for the Roots. I know they don't need the sympathy, being a pretty successful band, award winning and the whole 9 - but in another sense, what do they have to do to get some props? At their worst they might be too good - taking something cosmic but simple like beats and rhymes, and elevating it to audio art. Why does it feel like I have a secret or something in liking them? lol - I was into "conscious" hip-hop as a kid, and music that had more adult themes, but I never hear kids mumbling the lyrics to "Unwritten" while waiting on a train. Again, I know they have a million fans, could probably sell out a venue on Staten Island ( ! ), Late Night gig, etc. - but like, where are the ?heads? I'd settle for a drunk hipster with a fake fro' screaming along to every song

Frey
Frey

I have to say first off that the review seems to be honest and well thought out with just a few exceptions. I happen to agree that "hipsters", or the mass that does in fact exist that you conveniently chose to leave out of your piece, are in fact an issue for many, myself included. Also, "That said, I cannot believe how drunk Astorians get on a Wednesday night." You didn't honestly think that the 1500+ people that were there to see The Roots for $40 in an outdoor venue were all from Astoria now did you? Now the question might be, who's having the reaction here?

jek
jek

Fair point about the drunk comment; I still bridle at the idea of identifying "hipsters" -- or "nerds" or "jocks" or whatever -- as an identifiable social genus, and then making sweeping assumptions about someone's personality because they "look like" they belong that that genus. Again, there are *much* bigger problems in the world today, but as far as pet peeves go, I'd file this somewhere near the top of mine.

Squareonenyc
Squareonenyc

As an Astorian for about 6 years, I can tell you that for a lot of us, our attitude problem is reactionary. I have seen Manhattanites and Brooklynites turn their noses up at us, as if we are not cool enough because we refuse to spend $1500 a month to share an apartment with 2 other people to be able to afford to live here. Or just because we live in Queens (gasp! God forbid!). People really need to get over themselves.With that said, I was at the Roots show. Great sound, great sightlines, great show. I really hope they book more bands here.

maura
maura

It's totally reactionary, sure. But there's a reverse-reaction problem, don't you think? I got in a tussle with someone on Astorians who characterized all the female patrons of Queens Comfort as "20somethings with granny glasses," which, I can assure you, I am not. (I've lived in Astoria for nine years, am verging on 36, and buy most of my clothes at shops that could probably be called "antihip.") I don't think Joe is wrong here in talking about how the reverse-reaction against so-called "hipsters" (uch, that word) is just as toxic as the colonization by such types of people.

Lloyd
Lloyd

What the f do your hipster glasses have to do with any of the show, the venue or Astoria?

maura
maura

Reading is hard. I know.

stenro
stenro

I am very familiar with The Roots, not so much their work, though, save for a couple of tunes. I won tix to last night's show so I thought it would be worth going. It was. It was a good time party grovvin' to the jams. At a venue like this, I wouldn't expect any band to dig deep into their own repertoire. Musicians putting out great sound that gets the crowd going is fine.As to the event space- first time there. I agree there was no bad spot- all open sight line to the stage. My wife and I were lucky and got spots at a table. Good beer selection and I thought very reasonably priced (a pitcher of German draught for $18.) Food line took quite a while, but decent burger for $10. Despite being tired from a long day at work, it was a great distraction.

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