MONTREAL — The Roots’ Friday evening North American tour opener brought the heat to this cold city with a two-hour set of old favorites, new crowd-pleasers and fresh twists on some classic hip-hop tunes.
After Montreal residents DJ Storm and Shades of Culture warmed up the sold-out crowd with old-school classics, the Roots took the stage in darkness and rapper Black Thought announced, “You are now rocking with the best.” As a giant screen displayed a purple neon outline of the group’s Phrenology album cover, the group launched into the disc’s second track, “Rock You.”
Audience members cheered in anticipation as guitarist Ben Kenney playfully teased them with the opening riff of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” and Thought had them throwing their hands in the air “8 Mile” style. The group then transitioned to Phrenology’s “Thought @ Work,” mixing in covers of Leadbelly’s “Black Betty” and Rick James’ “Super Freak.”
The crowd dug “Proceed,” “Act Too (Love of My Life)” and “Water,” singing, dancing and hanging on every note as the spotlights flashed from all sides of the stage.
“We’re not done,” Thought alerted the crowd, which cheered and threw fists in the air as he eased into Phrenology’s “Break You Off.”
Bassist Leonard “Lenny Flynt” Hubbard, sporting a sleeveless hoodie, kept the crowd’s energy high, soloing and echoing the sounds of the bass on the mic as the rest of the band took a break.
Guest Mad Skillz then took command of the mic for a lengthy cameo, stealing the spotlight to rap about his talent as a songwriter on “Ghost Writer,” egging the crowd on with persistent jabs at P. Diddy.
After a few more by Skillz about how today’s artists can only “rap about cars and crack,” Roots drummer ?uestlove, sporting a Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey, led the Roots back onstage. Thought and Skillz got into a freestyle war as the crowd shouted in approval. Thought won after Skillz botched a rhyme, to the playful jeers of the Roots and the crowd.
The Roots got right back into it, starting the second half of the show playing “Sacrifice” with Kenney going falsetto to fill in Nelly Furtado’s part.
“We ’bout to give you more of what you looking for,” rapped Thought, reminding the sweaty, overheated and unflinchingly energetic crowd that the show was nowhere near its close. “Pussy Galore” came next, and the crowd chilled a bit as a percussion solo and several minutes of distortion followed.
The excitement peaked again with the commercial classic “You Got Me.” In lieu of Jill Scott’s vocals, the group twisted the tune to feature a reggae flavor and a hard rock interlude that included blindingly bright flashing strobes and spotlights.
Dueling percussion and a bit of blues followed, with no less intensity or enthusiasm on the part of the bandmembers, who when not playing grooved on the side of the stage or, like Kenney, on the drum platform.
The show began to wind down around midnight, with a medley of mainstream and old-school hip-hop, including Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It.” The finale featured the band turning the lights on and off while striking b-boy poses in honor of the late Jam Master Jay.
Scratch showed his beatboxing skills to close out the show, bringing the crowd’s screams to a climax by picking up a sneaker and pretending to scratch with it before following the group offstage.
Waiting until the crowd’s cheers for an encore became near deafening, the Roots took the stage again, remixing a medley of old tunes with fresh new beats. At close to 12:30 Thought threw his arm around Mad Skillz, who joined the group to close the show.
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