A number of reviews of last Saturday's John Legend & the Roots gig at Hammersmith have asked what motivated the audience to attend; To see John Legend singing his soulful love songs; to have a rare sight of the Roots excellent full on rap meets rock meets ......whatever? or as in my case to hear those songs, the ones that i grew up with, that despite the fact that i had no way of identifying with the struggle they represented became very prescient to me - even part of my education.
The gig was the only way of seeing this combination in London playing their excellent covers album of civil rights songs from the 60's and 70's. We've all heard some of these or at least some others with the same sentiments played by other artists not quite so up to the task. Both acts here are known for music with much integrity. Both took to the road in 2008 to support Obama's run for the White House. The resulting album recorded from that collaboration and since called "Wake Up" includes both well known songs from the era from artists like Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and; some lesser known and rearranged titles like James Kirkland's "Hang On In There" and "Hard Times" - a track originally by Curtis Mayfield (but in a very different form here).
So what did we get? Firstly a stage set developed from their cartoon street corner as a backdrop complete with street light and doors from which the guys emerged both at the start and as they rotated through their set. They arrived without announcement and launched into "Hard Times" then "Compared To What" and "Our Generation" at this point my son who I had co opted to be my gig buddy for the night turned and told me how fantastic this was, Pause here. Here I am 50 something and been through years of playing him this sort of stuff - my heroes, the soundtrack to my life almost - you'd expect "Dad Tunes!" but he's inherited some great taste obviously.
John Legend then took over for a couple of his big numbers including "Save Room" and Used to Love You" which were really well received (the guy next to me came to hear these and was bewildered by the "new songs"). The Roots went into "The Seed" to rapturous applause then onto a version of "Move On Up" which let's face it must have been on the original list of songs for the album. A track from the new album followed (yet to be bought so not sure of title).
Back together on stage (for me) the momentum was lost slightly by the appearance of Estelle - great in her own right but not her pop with this high calibre soul.
Back to the album and "Wake Up Everybody" a blistering guitar driven "I Can't Write Left Handed" (which I see as a track from the Bill Withers Carnegie set but my son knows from containing the sample for "Demons" a collaboration between Fat Boy Slim and Macy Gray ( much better than it sounds). This short song in it's original form is a full 12 or so minute epic with Hendrix or in this case should I say Isleys style guitar.
Throughout the Roots and added sidemen and girl singers were superb. The rapping of Black Thought was clear, intelligent and rhythmic. The drumming from ?uestlove solid and the foundation of the whole performance, the guitar (sorry don't know the name) outstanding but basically the whole bunch could do and did no wrong.
I have wished for a resurgence of these songs or at least the sentiments that drive them for a long time. I believed that music would never be up to the challenge in the same form or to the same high standard. The album and this spectacular performance proved me wrong and has leapt into my top 5 all time best gigs. I fully expect this to be listed next month as one of the gigs of the year and deservedly so. For so many reasons and all the right ones. There is hope. Musically for Soul Dads like me and Politically no matter where you're from. I normally always say leave it alone once you've made an album like this but the subject matter, the songbook of black America begs for a second volume and these guys have it in them to deliver again at this level.