"I'm so confused where I am right now. Am I on the same stage as the Roots?" roots rocker Shakey Graves asked the packed and sweaty house at The Roots & Friends jam at South By Southwest on Saturday night (March 18). "You guys ready for a nice, country-themed waltz -- with the Roots?"
It was actually only two of the Roots -- drummer Questlove and bassist Mark Kelley -- but Graves' point was well-taken. In just its second year of the SXSW closing-night spectacle, the hip-hop stalwarts and Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon band turned things up -- and on their side a bit. The show changed locations, to the 800 Congress building, where crowds were lined up for blocks before doors opened, with many remaining in line throughout the nearly four-hour show in (mostly futile) hopes of getting in.
It was notably more diverse than its inaugural year. Graves was one proof of that; so was Australian singer and former The Voice contestant Cloves. Even Brandy, whose nimble five-song medley was one of the show's highlights -- what Roots frontman Black Thought called "straight from left field" -- amidst an otherwise heavy dose of hip-hop that include Method Man and Redman, T.I., Rae Rae Sremmurd. The set also included a surprise sit-in by De La Soul, which played at Rachael Ray's Feedback party earlier in the day, and up-and-coming MCs such as Nick Grant, Cyhi The Prynce and Jidenna.
The show took a vintage rock turn after midnight when Roots' guitarist Captain Kirk Franklin paid tribute to rock 'n' roll founding father Chuck Berry, who died earlier in the day, by tearing through "Johnny B. Goode," mixing in some Marty McFly-style soloing.
Brandy, who finished her portion with her first two hits, "I Wanna Be Down" and "Baby," pronounced herself "a little nervous" during her time on stage and told Billboard afterwards that the experience was "amazing. It felt like I was up there for seven seconds. I was like, 'Do we really have to stop?' I felt like I was seven years old again."
Saturday's variety turned the Roots' jam a bit of a SXSW microcosm, a kind of barrier-free zone, not unlike what the Roots do on NBC, for any and all forms of music and musicians -- something that no doubt pleased SXSW co-founder/CEO Roland Swenson, who stopped in to check it out for a bit.
But the show was more than satisfactory for any hip-hop fan with plenty of loose freestyling and vamping, as well as particularly strong performances of the Roots' "You Got Me," Method Man's "All I Need" and "M.E.T.H.O.D. Man" and a hoodie-wearing T.I.'s one-two punch of "What You Know" and "Bring 'Em Out."
The Roots & Friends felt like a winner last year and was even more so on Saturday -- although another move, to a larger space, might be advisable, as this is the kind of show as many SXSW attendees should have an opportunity to see.