PHILADELPHIA As members of the loosely knit, all-star collective Soulquarians, they share a jazz-inflected sound and often political lyrics. But Erykah Badu, Common, Talib Kweli and the Roots' Black Thought didn't come to the Transit club on Wednesday to perform they came to play.
Showcasing the Soulquarians outfit at a party celebrating the February birthdays of the Roots' ?uestlove and producer/keyboardist James Poyser, singer Badu and rappers Common, Kweli and Black Thought put on an anything-goes show, exchanging freestyles and bringing countless guest artists onstage.
In addition to serving as the birthday boys, Poyser and drummer ?uestlove are also the key members of the Soulquarians, a live outfit whose rotating membership also includes rapper Mos Def and R&B singers D'Angelo, Jill Scott and Bilal, and whose name refers to the zodiac sign many members share: Aquarius.
Badu saxophonist Jacques "Pepe" Swarzbart anchored the house band for the evening, and during the first hour was joined by warm-up acts including U.K. female rap duo Flowetry, soul singer Lady Alma and Philly MC Bryan Banks.
Rapper Burgundy stole the first half of the concert with an assured rendition of Sly and the Family Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay," which he growled in his best Sylvester Stone impersonation as the band felt its way through the improvised backing arrangement.
Despite the openers, the Transit crowd seemed to grow restless an hour into the showcase. But the sudden presence of?uestlove and Poyser onstage snapped the audience back into the moment, as the hulking Roots drummer took his position behind the riser and Poyser slid up to the keyboards.
"This event, to me, is the celebration of the cream of the crop that comes from Philadelphia," ?uestlove whose Roots began in the city said prior to taking the stage. "I feel like Philadelphia is the [leader] when it comes to new soul, or next soul, or neo soul, or whatever."
Singer Jaguar came out, launching into her lyrical hook from "What You Want," a cut off "The Best Man" soundtrack and the Roots' 1999 live effort, The Roots Come Alive, but quickly called for a breakdown.
"Where's my partner at?" Jaguar asked the crowd before bringing out Black Thought to spew rhymes on the track. "I can't finish this without my partner."
After ripping through the song, Black Thought and Jaguar were joined by several hype men through an extended jam of "The Lesson Part III (It's Over Now)," before Black Thought led the onstage MCs through a 30-minute freestyle. The rapper joked about extending the show until 6 in the morning, boasting that he "always rocks the party/ And they never want me to leave."
After Black Thought passed the mic around to his side MCs who all offered up their own lyrical flow for the audience's approval or derision the stage became even more crowded as Kweli and Common joined the festivities.
Sporting a black New York Yankees cap slung backwards, Kweli dropped several tight couplets before passing off to Common, who confidently stepped to the plate with his first freestyle: "With the microphone, it's like I'm home/And I'm in the zone."
Common, wearing a blue and white knit cap, then passed back to Kweli, who replied, "Wow, well you caught me off guard/ But I will do my best to ensure my part." The house band then segued into "The Light," a hit off Common's Like Water for Chocolate LP.
Midway through that track, Erykah Badu managed to creep onstage and began playing a red tambourine and singing the song's chorus. The crowd was slow to acknowledge her arrival, as Badu was bereft her traditional headwrap: She instead sported a freshly shorn head, which she recently unveiled in her video for the Mama's Gun track "Didn't Cha Know."
The band then slipped into the rhythm from Dr. Dre's "Xxplosive," a track that provides the basis for Badu's "Bag Lady". She delivered an impassioned performance of the song, strolling across the stage with a black book bag on her back.
Later in the evening, as Badu was nestled in a corner of the club following the concert, the singer revealed what she had been carrying in her bag all along, an African-American cloth doll.
As the gig crossed the two-and-a-half-hour mark, Badu closed out the evening with a rousing run through "Booty," another track from Mama's Gun. Finishing her two-song set, Badu asked the crowd to keep the birthday vibes flowing by "screaming for the birth of these two brothers." The Transit crowd was happy to oblige.