Concert Review: The Roots at PANAMANIA Live @ Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto

IMG_20150808_213908While the 2015 Pan Am Games closing ceremonies event wasn’t quite what I expected (I may have even overreacted in my review), I’ve heard only good things about the PANAMANIA Arts & Culture program.  Everyday throughout the Pan Am Games, PANAMANIA has put on several free concerts in Nathan Phillips Square to accompany the athletes’ victory celebrations, and this month they’re back for the Parapan Am Games.  I don’t think any major Hip-Hop artists graced the stage over the past month, but this Saturday event would be headlined by arguably Hip-Hop’s greatest band ever: The Roots.

Whether you know them from watching “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” or you’re up on their great discography filled with classic albums, The Legendary Roots Crew are always crowd pleasers no matter where they perform.  They were last in Toronto in 2014 for the Luminato Festival, and that show ended up topping my list for the best concerts of the year.  Besides The Roots, Nathan Phillips Square would be busy from early in the afternoon with several other performers, including Whitehorse, Tanya Tagaq, and of course the victory celebration for whichever athletes competed that day.

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Nathan Phillips Square has been completely transformed for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.  There was the new Toronto sign standing along the pond (which turns into an ice skating rink in the winter), two large stages for performances, a central hub with large screens and speakers, and several food trucks surrounding the area.  Most of the day’s events were finished by the time I arrived, as I believe Tanya Tagaq was wrapping up her set as I made my way to the barricaded area to get a beer.  The beer was not a strong point for the festival, as one tallboy costs a ridiculous $9, and you had to keep your beer in the barricaded area with almost no view of the main stage.  There was a dance performance happening on the pond in front of the Toronto sign as I drank a cold one.

By the time I worked my way into the crowd, a poetry slam was happening on the west stage, with one girl wowing the crowd with her poem about the lack of inspiration Disney princesses have for young coloured girls.  After the poetry slam, a DJ at some other stage I couldn’t see (but was shown on all the screens) played some classic Hip-Hop as we waited for The Roots.  He fittingly began by scratching Sean Price’s name into the beginning of Gang Starr’s “Full Clip,” as the Hip-Hop veteran Sean P had passed away that same day.  The crowd grew quickly, as the entire Nathan Phillips Square was jam packed with thousands of people.

IMG_20150808_223543Pretty soon the band took the main north stage, and right away it was a different show from the last time they were in Toronto.  They began their set with the start of their Things Fall Apart album, with “Table of Contents” leading into “The Next Movement,” which also included a badass bass guitar solo from Mark Kelley. As with the last time they were here, Kamal Gray wasn’t there to play keys, but this time they had their “Tonight Show” bandmate James Poyser to take over his spot.  They also had a white guy playing MPC (we’d learn later on he was EDM producer Jeremy Ellis), which was a new addition to the band.

With The Roots starting their set in 1999, they began to move back in time, as they performed “What They Do” off their Illadelph Halflife album followed by “Proceed” off of 1994’s Do You Want More?!!!??!.  They then shot forward to 2010 with “The Fire” before getting the crowd to jump during their 2008 hit “Get Busy.”  This then transitioned smoothly into a cover of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” which they sampled on their 2006 hit “Don’t Feel Right.”  Rather than performing the latter track though, they got into a short drum solo with Questlove and Frank Knuckles drumming back and forth.

The Roots took it back to 1999 with some more Things Fall Apart tracks, including “Without A Doubt” and “Dynamite.”  The band then took a break and allowed the new EDM DJ Jeremy Ellis to take over with his MPC.  He began with a tribute to the late J Dilla by recreating his song “Workinonit” (my ringtone!) with his MPC.  Mr. Ellis then rocked the crowd with some wicked EDM production made live in front of us.  He played his MPC with his fingers, chin and elbows, at one point sampling the Super Mario theme to make a beat.  Dare I say his solo had the crowd more hyped than the usual Captain Kirk guitar solos I’m used to seeing?

After the crowd went wild for Jeremy Ellis’ solo, the band rejoined him on stage and got into another throwback with “Mellow My Man.”  They then gave James Poyser a keyboard solo, as he played some electronic keys and also briefly did his “thank you” music from “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”  Tuba Gooding Jr. then got a solo on his sousaphone, and just as last time, he worked his ass off pulling stunts while playing the heavy instrument.  His solo turned into the slow jam “Break You Off,” which set the mood perfectly for the next song: the Grammy award-winning “You Got Me.”

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As per usual, “You Got Me” included a near 10-minute guitar solo from Captain Kirk Douglas.  This one was slightly different from previous performances though, as it included a cover of a Fetty Wap song, as well as “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses to go along with his usual guitar-crying segment and his playing the guitar above his head.  It’s always an amazing thing to see Captain Kirk’s guitar solo, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.  As if the energy wasn’t already high, the guitar solo transitioned into the 2002 jam “The Seed 2.0.”

The Roots kept the crowd hyped with a cover of Sugarhill Gang’s “Jump On It” before wrapping up their set with what could be considered Black Thought’s solo: a cover of Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Men At Work.”  As always, it’s awesome to witness the expert breath-control Black Thought uses to pull off all three monster verses on his own.  The band did their usual routine with this song, dancing behind Black Thought as he rapped the verses, with Frank Knuckles playing the silent hypeman, and the music stopping between verses to engage the crowd.  Jeremy Ellis added some samples of guns loading and cocking into the mix, giving the song some extra fire.  The band then played themselves out with another short guitar solo, with Captain Kirk and Tuba Gooding Jr. jumping from atop Questlove’s bass drum.

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After The Roots wrapped up their set, they threw some shirts and drumsticks into the crowd, and took some pictures/selfies.  The show wasn’t quite over yet though, as Serena Ryder’s theme for the Pan Am Games played and fireworks were set off from atop City Hall behind the stage.

Overall, this was an awesome show and is easily a contender for best concert of the year (we’ll have to see when I make my list in December).  Unlike the Pan Am Games closing ceremonies, PANAMANIA makes sure to give artists enough time on stage for the fans to enjoy their sets.  The Roots gave one hell of a performance as usual, and even though this was my third time seeing them live, the show was unique.  Some songs and routines were familiar, but this show had The Roots mostly stick to the 1990’s with a heavy focus on their classic Things Fall Apart album, whereas the last show had a heavy focus on their work from the 2000’s.

Last time I wrote that they can ignore albums like Illadelph Halflife, most of Things Fall Apart, Organix and Undun and still put on an amazing show.  This time they ignored The Tipping Point, Game Theory, and their most recent albums, and still put on an amazing show.  The addition of Jeremy Ellis to the lineup was a nice touch too, and it would be cool to see some more collaborations with him in the future.  The Roots continue to show that they’re one of the most talented bands in all of music.

 

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