It’s the first night of this years’ Meltdown Festival on the Southbank in London, and this year it’s being curated by Free Jazz legend Ornette Coleman. Reflecting his diverse musical tastes, there’s Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and Bobby McFerrin playing in the next couple of days but tonight he’s put The Roots from Philadelphia on the bill to open the festival.
Black Thought and drummer/musical arranger ?uestlove start the set with a quick tribute to hip hop by performing “Jam Master Jay” by Run DMC, “Protect ya neck” by Wu Tang Clan (where Black Thought does all the members’ verses), “Got it like that” by the Jungle Bros and “As The Rhyme Goes On” by Rakim. It’s a nice way to warm the crowd up and shows their obvious love for the genre. The venue is packed and the crowd seems to be made up of all age ranges and ethnicities, it’s not just a hip hop crowd but The Roots have appealed to a broad range for a good while now.
They’re then joined on stage by Owen Biddle (bass), Frankie Knuckles (percussion), Kamal Gray (keyboards) and Vernon Reid from Living Colour guesting on guitar. Black Thought gets the crowd to stand up at the all seated venue and the gig can properly get underway. It’s a slick show with a high standard of musicianship. They do a version of their hit “You got me” with a reggae backing and it’s nice to hear a different version of a well known song.
Each musician gets a change to solo and the stand out is when ?uestlove starts his drum solo then stands up, drums along the side of his drum kit, taps out a rhythm on the stage floor then walks over to the percussionist’s set up where the two of them play congas and bongos together for a while. He then walks back to his drum kit drumming all the way before finally sitting down – all without missing a beat.
Vernon Reid also played a couple of great solos, using a range of effects pedals and fluid riffs to lend a rockier edge to the band’s trademark sound. He’s still doing his thing with Living Color but it was great to hear him playing as part of a hip hop band.
Another highlight was when Ornette Coleman, David Murray and Andy Hamilton all guested on saxophone on some of the songs. Andy Hamilton is now 91 years old and still playing with a dexterity that belies his age. Both his and Ornette Coleman’s solos provoked huge cheers.
The set finishes and the band go off, with ?uestlove returning a couple of times to see how keen people are for an encore. After going off and coming back on a couple more times, Black Thought returns and introduces the UK’s Nathan ‘Flutebox’ Lee. He’s a beatboxing flute player of Indian and Scottish descent who plays a short tune on his flute while beatboxing at the same time. It’s a neat way to end the show and good to see them giving props to rising UK talent.
After Flutebox goes off, the band takes to the stage one more time and Black Thought performs Kool G Rap’s “Men at work”, a classic from the debut album “Road to the riches”. With that final encore, The Roots have been on stage for well over two hours. It’s a set that flows but in true jazz tradition it emphasied the solo playing of all the members. A good start to Meltdown, The Roots deliver everytime.