A Night of Symphonic Hip-Hop
with the Roots, Dallas POPS, Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper and Bilal
The Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory, Irving
Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017
Chaka Khan emerged like a flamenco dancer, fluttering a silken hand-fan with “CHAKA” etched into its folds. She was the surprise guest for The Roots’ collaboration with Dallas Pops at The Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory on Tuesday night, and when she strode onto the stage an hour into the show, the audience lost their minds. Behind her, a 50-piece orchestra sweated in tuxedos.
"OK, this next song I’m sure most of you over 30 are familiar with," she said, her gold sequin dress reflecting light. Chimes rang. Strings undulated. Robert Glasper spun — one-handed — through a synth lead in a beanie, fingers spidering across the keyboard.
It took a moment for the crowd to recognize the song “I Know You, I Live You.” With the orchestra, it sounded like Les Fleur-era Minnie Riperton. The beat wasn't the electronic pulse of the original; it was exotic. Khan sang in perfect bursts, with a rowdy but angelic voice that induced shivers. She didn’t even need a microphone.
The show had begun much quieter, with a lone synth and a sample from a poem about death, possibilities and dreaming. Black Thought dove into “Web” over strings, which animated the song. The beat stomped hard as the cellos swayed with Sam Cooke grace. A sea of heads nodded to the sweeping sounds of violins.
“This gave me life," Facebook user Nikki Washington-Givens commented on the live feed presented by Amazon.
Each song blended seamlessly into the next. No stops, no chatter, no politics, no time wasted — just music.
The Roots' “Star” melded into Miles Davis, melded into “20 Feet Tall.” Erykah Badu strode onstage in a Tom Petty top hat and majestic jewelry.
As a band, the Roots are sharper than ever. They practice every day, and their performances are downright athletic. They can glide through styles and genres with ease.
When Badu started “You Got Me,” trumpets brightened the song. Flutes crescendoed alongside Sonic Youth guitar. Guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas bee-bopped into a jazz-soaked hip-hop solo. At one point, he lifted his ruby Gibson SG with gold pickups toward the crowd and soloed one-handed.
During intermission, the audience was chatty. Concertgoer Glenn Gibson said he had been listening to his favorite Roots songs on the way to the concert. Gibson had seen Badu before, but it was his first time seeing the Roots. He says the show lived up to his expectations.
“I was surprised the crowd was so mellow for the first part — they seemed mellow. But overall, the energy was good,” he said.
Nate Green, on the other hand, was seeing The Roots for the ninth time. He was a freshman in college the first time he saw them, 20 years ago, at a backroom venue in Austin.
“They were a different band then," he said. Green has now seen them in every concert setting (arenas, bars, upscale venues) and in several cities (Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Houston). “This was the best one,” Green said, “because of the orchestra.”
Green bought tickets as close to the stage as possible. “You know the songs, but with the symphony, they take you somewhere else, and you’re wondering, ‘Was that the song?’”
After intermission, Bilal brought the gospel in a stark preacher's gown. As he sang out, the room felt holy. The audience got out of their seats, clapping, closing their eyes and hollering. At times, it almost sounded like amen.
The venue had the acoustics of a gymnasium, but the music was so good it didn't distract. "The new venue’s vast, open atmosphere was welcoming to all the various instruments being played," said Houston native Henry Huddleston.
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The show had been billed as symphonic hip-hop, but really it was a confluence of every noteworthy genre of recorded music. Every perspective seemed to be there.
There was every sort of percussion. Galvanic drum breaks harmonized with breathing symphonic moments that left you gutted. Questlove’s Ludwig drum kit sounded like a timpani at times. Then the acoustic drum kit turned electronic, and a man hunched over an Ableton sequencer with prismatic buttons.
Best of all, the show was fun. The entire time, everyone onstage — from the tuba player to the bassist, the back-up singers to the conductor — swayed with bright energy. Being there felt American. In many ways, the evening was a summary of American music, but it was also a celebration of what we, and music, can become. And in an era of American strangeness, that’s as good as sanctuary.