An Okayplayer Night At Summerstage

(This was a review I did for Okayplayer’s The Revivalist, but due to falling ill I was unable to submit it in time. Here in its entirety is what I wrote about the Groove Theory reunion at Summerstage back in June. I shot all of the photos of the concert.)

The Summerstage series at Central Park has always been home to special musical gatherings, and the one that took place last Sunday for Father’s Day continued in that tradition. Fans packed the venue for a lineup that a music devotee growing up in the 90s would have had to pinch themselves to see happen. Artists who bore some relation to the group that is dubbed the hardest working in the industry, The Roots, and their collective, Okayplayer, took over the evening and packed the place with many music nerds and older Hip-Hop and R&B heads. It even brought out some familiar faces of the era that Groove Theory reigned in like Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and Bobbito Garcia of the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito radio show.

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As the doors opened to the park, Questlove, who apparently had just gotten back from Spain, wasted no time and set off the event with samples to Hip-Hop classics like Diamond D’s “I went For Mine” and Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “Straighten It Out.” The selections were mainly aimed at music aficionados who either had nearly the encyclopedic knowledge of genres like Quest, or were interested in exploring what influenced contemporary music. During the last break between sets he had a special treat that some fans may have picked up on. As he spun songs from Michael Jackson, it became clear to some that these were not the edits of the songs they were accustomed to. They were actually takes and stripped down versions of music from the sessions from albums like “Off The Wall.” A few months ago he had previewed a sample of this to an audience of critics and music historians at NYU during the EMP conference there. While this was a wider ranging crowd, some did take to Twitter to note what they had heard.

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The team up of Black Thought and Rahzel to form the duo “Riq and Rah” harkened back to the two being in The Roots in the 90s. They paid homage to the golden age of Hip-Hop with edgy rhyming over classic beats and breaks. Some of the lyrics were from Roots songs such as a version of “The Fire” that Black Thought rhymed over the “Otis” beat from Kanye West and Jay-Z. DJ J-Period backed the group for most of the tracks, but once a beat had been played to the first chorus, Rahzel would begin to beat box over some of the selections and imitate the vocals. His mastery of this technique has not waned one bit over the years and wowed the crowd at many points in the set.

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Soulive brought the funky style of jazz that they mastered over the years, locking grooves into their songs while incorporating enough changes in their music to keep the jazz heads there paying attention. Joining them for the set was saxophonist Karl Denson, previously part of Lenny Kravitz’s band, who had recently done a tribute album with them in homage to the late Melvin Sparks. Dropping their funk and soul influenced style of jazz onto the crowd, tracks such as the “Spark!” one off the album of the same name took the audience into a different kind of groove from the other acts. Lively solos got the audience into the music of the group, winning many fans over who probably got their first exposure to them that evening.

It was exactly 8:50 in the evening when DJ Questlove faded the music away during the final intermission, letting fans know that the moment they had been waiting over 15 years for had come. By then the sun had nearly set and the tone for the final performance was set. It was clear by the energy of the crowd during the introduction that this performance was anticipated. As Amel Larrieux and Bryce Wilson took the stage, fans cheered the prospect of seeing the two live since they had disbanded over a decade ago. And judging by the energy Amel brought to her set, she was just as excited to be there to share the moment with them too.

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Jumping into the hits from the group like “Tell Me” and “Baby Luv,” the performances sounded similar to the original recordings and even benefitted from the band backing and expanding on some of the numbers. She also took time between songs to talk about her passion for music and how Groove Theory came together. Amel did not simply rely on her own material though and did covers of songs from her contemporaries. From Faith Evans’ “You Used to Love Me” and D’Angelo’s “Lady,” she acknowledged the talent of her peers from the same time and put her own touch on each rendition.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening did not come from Amel herself, but rather someone in her family. Before the evening was over everyone in her band got a chance to do a solo. The young daughter of the singer, Sky, who played keys and backup for her, got her turn. What the audience got treated to was a talent in the making that possessed the vocal qualities of her mother. Amel called Sky the hardest working person in the band, and hearing her that night offered a glimpse of her potential. If Sky decided to follow down her mother’s footsteps, there would be a place for her in the current music scene.

The short sets kept fans wanting more, teasing them with 20-30 minute performances and equally long breaks in-between. There were some sound issues throughout the show which was a bit unusual for Summerstage, but it never truly disrupted the performances or show. When the crowd cheered for an encore from Groove Theory, it was clear that they were still hungry for the sounds of that era. While the encore did not happen there will hopefully be more coming from the duo as they enter the second act of their partnership. The demand is there, as the time seems to be right for them to put out an official sophomoric release.

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