“This ain’t Hollywood, this is hip-hop,” emcee Amanda Seales said at one point during the first of three nights of the Roots‘ annual Grammy Jam, being held at the intimate Hotel Café.
The private, invite-only showcases brought the two worlds together, as the Philly band has for the past decade. With shout-outs to sponsors Beats, Martell and Serato — the DJ technology company who just launched the consumer app, Pyro, featuring a customized playlist by the Roots — and the aforementioned invite-only crowd, which included Queen Latifah, Leon Bridges and Natasha Bedingfield, the Hollywood Grammy aspect was unmistakable. But all credit to the Roots and special guests like John Legend, the soul and hip-hop was equally palpable, thanks to some strong jams and statements.
The night, scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m., didn’t get going until 10:20 and the Roots didn’t take the stage until 10:45, but they quickly made up for lost time, kicking off with an extended jam that included a tuba, not something you see every day on a stage that size. But the Roots’ jam is a chance for them to both mix things up and play with their friends, like Legend, the first major guest brought onstage.
After a superb rendition of “Hard Times,” a track from the album Wake Up, which the two collaborated on in 2010, Legend said: “We’re getting the crew back together. I’m so happy to be here with the Roots crew in this place tonight.”
He then referenced Wake Up, adding, “We made a nice album together, fellas.”
It definitely did not feel like six years had passed as they played four songs together, including Legend’s soulful take of Bruce Springsteen‘s “Dancing in the Dark” and the finale, an explosive version of Bill Withers‘ powerful anti-war statement “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” Going on for more than 10 minutes, the 1973 anthem was a pointed barrage of horns, drums, guitars and Legend’s vocals that, sadly, felt just as relevant and compelling as it must have during the Vietnam era.
Delivering a forceful social message wasn’t the only throwback element during the Roots’ 90 minutes onstage, with serious old-school jazz jam undertones also being a major component. When the Roots throw a jam, it feels like a session; you never know who might show up or what they might do.
The first set came to a close sometime after midnight with nominee Tori Kelly delivering vocal turns on “Unbreakable Smile” and a cover of Michael Jackson‘s “Butterflies” so impressive that Seales came out after and said, “Give it up for Tori Kelly — that’s a white girl that can sing.”
For those who had the stamina or didn’t have work the next morning, the band came back out after 12:30 a.m. following a brief intermission. The second half was highlighted by Nelly closing out the night with “E.I.,” Ride Wit Me” and “Hot in Herrre.”
It was Kelly, though, that summed it up best for all invited to be part of the Roots jam. “It’s an honor to be here, I love these guys.”