John Legend and the Roots – review

Hammersmith Apollo, London

In the middle of the first tuition-fees protest in London, Sky News's wretched Kay Burley found herself improbably talking about drum'n'bass, or as she insisted on referring to it, "the drum and the bass". An enterprising soul had brought a soundsystem along to the riot and was playing instrumental dance music: here, you could argue, was proof that the era of the old-fashioned protest song was long gone. It's a state of affairs mirrored in American r'n'b: in the late 60s and early 70s, virtually every major soul artist had some kind of political conscience. Even the most lubricious loverman occasionally ceased furnishing the world with updates on the state of his penis to bemoan Vietnam or the ghetto, but these days, the genre of soul protest has been utterly marginalised.

It's a void into which multiple Grammy-winning vocalist John Legend and hip-hop artists the Roots have boldly stepped with Wake Up!, a collaborative album that attempts to reboot classic, protest-era soul for the Obama era. It's a worthy idea, and that, theoretically, could be the problem. Quite aside from whether the super-smooth Legend – once a management consultant – can convincingly cope with the grittiness of the material, the Roots' career has been marked by a certain eat-this-it's-good-for-you earnestness, organic "real" instruments and all.

And yet, tonight, there's a swaggering confidence about the way they tackle Eugene McDaniels's Compared to What and Baby Huey's Hard Times. They just power into them so that the sheer force of the songs knocks you back. Legend's voice sounds commanding – he handles the starkness of the lyrics with aplomb – while the Roots' playing is taut and unshowy: Black Thought's rapping feels integral rather than grafted on to the songs. You don't feel you're witnessing an act of reverent archaeology; you don't feel like you're being played at.

You could argue that it's a ballsy move to include your own material in among the Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers songs. But the audience – clearly here to see John Legend rather than learn about the history of black protest songs – don't seem to mind when the singer shakes himself free of grit and starts with the bedroom stuff. They only wilt a bit during a cover of the Arcade Fire track that shares its title with the album: an improbable but bold attempt to join the dots between one kind of soulful uplift and another. If it doesn't go over as well as Legend's own material, a ferocious version of the Roots' The Seed, or a guest appearance from Estelle, it hardly matters: the old protest songs do connect, which means the experiment works.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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