The Legendary

The Roots kick it live from La Zona Rosa

I missed Leonard Hubbard last night. The bullish bass man who used to flank Philly’s finest stage left bounced out last August, much to the chagrin of fans. Who can blame him? ?uestlove couldn’t 14 months ago when asked about Hub’s departure. “To be a member of this group is to make a sacrifice on your life,” he wrote on Okayplayer’s website. “There’s a downside to being in your mid-30s and your dating life is still on some high school shit.”

The big man couldn’t sweat it out any longer, but the Roots truck on, as they’ve done so often in the past. Remember that Scott Storch once held down Kamal Gray’s keyboard post, Malik B. split mic time with Black Thought, and Incubus’ Ben Kenney riffed out the crew’s first legitimate guitar work. The Roots are hip-hop’s institution, tried and true, evolving and developing, but never sacrificing their product.

So enter Owen Biddle, the Philly native who’d earned songwriting and production credits on 2006’s Game Theory, to the low end. He strutted onstage in line with his crew Sunday night at La Zona Rosa, trailing Tuba Gooding Jr. in the horn procession.

I stood stage left, in line with the post Hub used to occupy, where he used to sweat it out hunched over his Fender Jazz bass. This time, Biddle shook and jived, weighing on his back foot and then pouncing forward. His head shook on the big breaks. He looked thrilled to be part of the movement.

Not that he isn’t fit to be there. As a bassist, Biddle is more technically proficient than his predecessor. He’s more in tune with this new Roots m.o. – the spontaneous steps and shuffles he works with guitarist Captain Kirk and Tuba Gooding, the way the crew now revels the role of Greatest Hip-Hop Band of All Time. Hub’s aesthetic was so workmanlike. His hulking frame never shook like Biddle’s, his scowl never dropped in favor of amazement towards his fellow players.

Hub was “Quills,” unassuming and understated, minimalist-like on “Rolling With Heat,” jazzed out like Do You Want More?!!??!. These new Roots are showmen: Captain Kirk rolls through 1970s rock riffs, levitating his Les Paul in Hendrix vein; Tuba Gooding Jr. 1-2 steps to all points of the stage, his giant sousaphone wrapped around his body and swaying side to side. F Knuckles, that pre-Kirk, post-Malik B. Rooter beating percussion alongside ?uestlove, abandoned his post during the show’s finale to play Black Thought’s hype man.

It’s ?uest, Kamal, and Black who play the role of workhorse now. ?uestlove’s smiles stay somewhat concealed by his low drumming post, hidden under that logo-worthy afro he picks out mid-song, beat kept with the left hand. He’s the human drum machine in an art form void of the talent. Kamal holds stoic save for his shoulder shakes, short waves in tune with the beat, leaning forward to handle his vocal parts. Black Thought is the consummate MC - talented enough to roll solo but better suited fronting the Entity - spitting vehemence into the mic, straight-faced and straight-laced, furious but composed. He scats over bandmate solos, he hypes his players as often as he hypes himself.

The blend is sublime, the finest piece of live performance hip-hop’s ever known. There’s nothing like the experience of a Roots show.

Setlist, 10.12.2008:

Rising Up * Get Busy * Star/Pointro * Step Into the Realm * Long Time * Mellow My Man * (Percussion Rumble) * Criminal * You Got Me * (Captain Kirk Solo) Sweet Child of Mine/Bad To The Bone/Mannish Boy/Who Do You Love/Immigrant Song medley * The Next Movement * (Owen Biddle Solo) The Seed 2.0 * Move On Up (Impressions Cover) * (Black Thought Solo)

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