WEST HOLLYWOOD — The Roots, the Roots, the Roots were on fire as they blasted through back-to-back classics, covers and mash-ups at their sixth annual Pre-Grammy Jam Session at Hollywood’s Key Club. The Philadelphia crew was clearly having a blast as friends like John Legend, Mos Def and ex-keyboardist Scott Storch joined them onstage throughout a night that lasted well past 2 a.m.
Slash, Twista, David Banner, Ryan Phillippe and Kelsey Grammer were among the luminaries who skipped stuffier Grammy events around town to check out the star-studded-but-casual affair. Prince, Dave Chappelle, Snoop Dogg and even Tom Cruise have dropped by in the past, and the 2010 incarnation of the event, sponsored by Green Music Group, lived up to all prior expectations as the crowd danced the night away to the non-stop tunes.
Instantly recognizable drummer Amir “?uestlove” Thompson was the first to wander onto the stage as the rest of the group leisurely assembled around him to loud cheers. After a rousing warm-up number that saw Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter doing his best James Brown impression, the Roots kicked things up. “Here I Come,” which the group has turned into the theme for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” was unexpectedly intense as sousaphonist Damon Bryson stomped alongside guitarist Kirk Douglas.
John Legend told the crowd he’s been working on a record with the Roots scheduled for release this summer and then tore into a brand-new track slated for that release. He got behind a keyboard for Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” (famously sampled on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic) and stayed there for the next song. Calling ?uestlove a musical encyclopedia, Legend described how they had been “digging in the crates” when they found the Vietnam War-inspired Bill Withers track “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.”
Before launching into the mournful song, Legend mentioned the “unjust wars” that have been fought since it was first recorded in 1972. The rendition of ’60s soul number “Compared to What” (by Les McCann and Eddie Harris) was an even feistier follow-up.
The love in the room for Mos Def was evident as soon as he strode onstage in suspenders, sport coat, cap and Abe Lincoln beard, clutching an old-fashioned, fire-engine-red microphone and blazing rapidly through impressive wordplays with his trademark flow. His energy was palpable, shouting out Boogie Down Productions and of course the Roots as he traded and often shared verses with Black Thought. He stuck around and offered support to Jay Electronica, who admitted to some nervousness but devastated the mic anyway. Scott Storch was another fan favorite as he banged along on a keyboard for a few songs without ever removing his shades.
The constantly grinning Owen Biddle made his mastery of the six-string bass look effortless throughout the evening, as keyboard players Kamal Gray and James Poyser traded smiles and obvious inside jokes with percussionist F. Knuckles. Douglas ripped his solos, shredding scales and finger-tapping like a metal maniac over the band’s pummeling power grooves. A true showman, he hoisted his guitar over a delighted Estelle, who joined the band for a strong rendition of their Grammy-winning 1999 hit “You Got Me” and the Temptations classic “Get Ready.”
Bilal, Foreign Exchange, Ledisi, Mack Main, Lil Twist, Shanell and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda took turns sitting in with the band as the night stomped forward. Despite the marathon set (which began a few minutes after midnight), people rarely checked the time on their phones but used them to post Twitter and Facebook updates about the show. In an era often dominated by studio trickery, the Roots and their many friends offered a firm reminder of the power of real, live hip-hop, soul and rock-and-roll.
Stick with MTV News all week for our coverage of the 2010 Grammy Awards. We’ll have reports on your favorite nominees, party photos, behind-the-scenes video and much more leading up to and during the big show Sunday (January 31) at 8 p.m. ET.