Last Night: Gym Class Heroes, The Roots and Estelle at The Grove

Better Than: Breaking up with a girl friend and writing a sappy song about it...leave that to the pros.

I didn't quite believe my eyes when I stumbled across The Grove's Oct. 16 concert listing a few weeks ago. As a perpetual sucker for hip hop bands, a chance to watch The Roots, Gym Class Heroes and Estelle all on one stage seemed too good to be true. Ok, so MOST of my excitement was for The Roots, but still I was curious to see if GCH and Estelle, two of Billboard's latest darlings, could pull off a memorable performance.

It was about 8:45 before I pushed past the lavish double doors of the venue. Before my eyes caught up to the flood lights of the stage, a low, farty tuba notes leaked out of the lavish double. It's not the sound most people typically associate with hip hop. But then again, if there's one thing you shouldn't count on from The Roots, it's a typical hip hop show.

Backed by a barrage of neon beams, the five-piece squad from Philly doled out some doctored up versions of their classic material with a guest tuba player Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson. I later learned the instrument he plays is actually called a sousaphone, but think tuba anyway.

The band's charismatic emcee Black Thought and hip hop drum god Quest Love remained in top form during their set which included a detour-filled version of "You Got Me" off the "Things Fall Apart Album". They also rocked out on "The Next Movement", another personal favorite from their 5th album "Phrenology".

A round-robin circus of solos from keyboardist Kamal Grey, percussionist F. Knuckles, bassist (and producer of the band's 2006 release Game Theory) Owen Biddle, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas kept the jam going for an appreciative crowd.

One thing that really got me about the set, besides all the quirky stage choreography the band incorporates into their performance these days, is how unstoppable these guys are as a jam band. From one minute to the next, they can contort any of their songs into rock, jazz, samba and still come right back to hip hop.

However, even though he joined the band in 2003,it's still a struggle to warm up to Douglas' over the top rock star routine on stage. Half the time he spends parading on stage would be better spent on a Quest Love drum solo.

But still, the dude's talent on guitar was truly amazing. His solos and vocal abilities are contribute to the band's genre-bending abilities. And how else can you explain his ability to weave a cover of Guns and Roses "Sweet Child-o-Mine" into a hip hop song? As soon as he busted out the main chords, the audience went crazy.

As their set ended, I realized that even though I missed Estelle's opening performance that The Roots certainly made up for the loss.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Gym Class Heroes set. I'll admit, I might be a little biased due to their troubling association to Fall Out Boy, but there's no denying this band has the "tween" hip hop market cornered. There were a couple points during their performance of "Clothes' Off!", that I felt like an uncomfortable audience member on the set of one of those MTV video request shows.

But even if emcee Travis McCoy's poppy, love lorn rhymes, we're difficult to stomach, his efforts to warm up the crowd were admirable. At one point he asked everyone in the audience to turn to someone they didn't know and hug them...kind of a strange ice breaker, but admirable. There might have been ten people who actually did it.

The band continued with their infectious hip hop jams, and they even threw in a momentary cover of Sam Cooke's soul hit "Cupid", of course as a set up for their radio hit "Cupid's Choke-hold".

The undisputed high light of GHC's set had to be when they erupted into a cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry". Even I'll admit that their version would have put a little smirk on the face of The Purple One himself.

McCoy also mentioned that he was honored to share the stage with The Roots and Estelle, which was good form considering that both acts probably deserved top billing over the New-York based band of twenty-somethings.

But as fans piled out of the concert hall, it seemed plausible that injecting a really great band in the middle of two pop music titans could be a really good thing. It could be a chance for teenie-boppers to experience music that they might not have checked out otherwise. Maybe it's a shallow notion, but I did remember seeing a couple teenage girls walking away with Roots T-shirts as I crossed the street on the walk back to my car. I won't lie, it put a corny little smile on my face.

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: Props to Quest Love for chucking signed drumsticks out in to the crowd. If I had any hops, I might have caught one...there's always next time I guess.

Random Detail: Did anyone see that group of kids get hustled out of the venue by three or four security guards towards the end of the show? What was that about?

By The Way: For more hip hop bliss, make sure to catch Warren G and DJ Quik at The Grove on Nov.1


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