When Frank Ocean made his national television debut earlier this month on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” he did so amidst a swell of attention of the likes the young and promising R&B artist had not seen at that point in his career.
Just hours before his performance on the late night talk show, Ocean released digital copies of his debut studio album, Channel Orange, a week earlier than was originally scheduled. But the majority of the public attention focused on him resulted from his blog post a few days before that frankly discussed the story of his first love – a man. The revelation sent shock waves throughout the R&B and Hip Hop community, which is often seen as behind the times with much of the rest of the world on sexuality issues.
However, once Ocean appeared onstage to perform two songs from his new record, “Start” and Thinkin Bout You,” none of the above was really considered. Instead, all focus was put on this young man presenting his immense young talent for the first time on a national stage. House band the Roots highlighted Ocean’s abilities as they provided his backing music.
In fact, the Roots have been a consistent and important part of the show since they were announced as the house band before the show premiered in 2009. The show has a large focus on music in general (who could forget Fallon’s own Neil Young and Bob Dylan impressions?), but it’s the Roots that deserve much of the musical attention.
Though they have been known to be controversial (see: Roots’ drummer Questlove choosing to cover the Fishbone song “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as the intro music for guest Michele Bachmann last year when she was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination), but it’s mostly been purely about their great music. The group often backs musical guests as they did with Ocean, and this often produces some of the most intriguing musical collaborations happening today.
Here’s a look at some of the best and/or most interesting “Late Night” performances featuring backing by the Roots.
Kenny Rogers – “The Gambler”
“The Gambler” is one of those legendary country songs, and at this point it’s hard to imagine it feeling fresh. While it’s a great song, it seems best served now to be played by Kenny in casinos around the country.
So when he performed a version of the song backed by the Roots on “Late Night,” it was a refreshing take on the song. Though the video is not currently available, you can see the pre-performance interview where Kenny discusses why he shaved his trademark beard.
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
Ok, ok – by the time teen sensation (despite the fact that she’s 26!) Carly Rae Jepsen appeared on “Late Night,” we were all pretty tired of hearing her hit “Call Me Maybe” – or at least tired of having the melody stuck in our head again.
However, her appearance on the show made everything a little better when, instead of performing a straight ahead version of the song that seemed to be playing about once every ten minutes on every pop radio station in the country anyway (and covered by everyone on YouTube, it would seem) – she and the Roots had a little something different planned.
Members of the group, along with Fallon, gathered around Jepsen and they all performed the song using instruments you’d be more likely to find in an elementary school classroom than on a professional stage (a sample: kazoo, toy xylophone, ukulele).
More than anything, the performance gave a fresh new take on the song. Check it out below.
Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon – History of Rap
Timberlake was on the show to promote the then-new movie “The Social Network” when he and Fallon broke out in an “impromptu” performance – backed by the Roots, of course – that took us all through the history of rap. They perform snippets of rap songs by classic artists throughout the years, starting with the Sugarhill Gang, and moving through Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, among others.
The performance was so successful that the two have done updated versions of the sketch in Timberlake’s subsequent appearances on the show. Unfortunately, there are not legal versions of the video of the performance available online.
Beyonce – “Countdown”
When Beyonce appeared on “Late Night” in November 2011 to support her hit single “Countdown,” she was only a couple months away from giving birth to her first baby. But her pregnancy in no way slowed her down during this performance, made all the better by the Roots trademark musicianship behind her.
If you’re beginning to notice a trend that there are not many music performance videos from “Late Night,” it’s because NBC Universal rarely allows performances on the show to be posted online. As a sort of consolation, here’s the official video for “Countdown,” which is equally as awesome as her performance with the Roots.
Elvis Costello “Brilliant Disguise” and “Fire”
Earlier this year, Fallon did a week-long tribute to Bruce Springsteen, so when Costello came on a guest, it makes sense that he would perform a Springsteen song – and in fact we got two.
The Roots backed him for both performances, and provided “Fire” with a great reggae beat. Of course, it’s not available online, but it was just as amazing at it seems like it would’ve been.