By Kayleigh Hughes, special to the American-Statesman
In a last minute substitution after the Weeknd’s cancellation, Usher and the Roots proved they can be counted on, putting on a stellar, energetic Sunday night set at Circuit of the Americas. The Formula One closing show felt less like a highly choreographed event designed to be flawless and more like the results of over a dozen performers whose level of experience and comfort with their craft beget natural, precision and top-caliber musicianship.
The atmosphere throughout was casual and relaxed. After all, at the end of the three-day event, the races had been won, Taylor Swift had brought the mega-star power the previous night, and everyone was in the mood to loosen up and enjoy themselves one last time before the weekend was over.
The Roots are a surefire hit in the wide-open environment of the Circuit of the Americas Super Stage. The band members, wearing coordinated all-black outfits, strolled onto the stage close to 7 p.m. and immediately made the venue their home, bursting right into a jazzy, celebratory medley of hits and classics, including a playful rendition of “Jungle Boogie.” Lead MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, though not the vocalist most in the crowd showed up to see, is a star performer in his own right, and he and the band got the tentative, mellow crowd worked up before the man himself, Usher, strolled onstage and owned it in a white button-down shirt.
Perhaps considered an “elder statesman” of the R&B and hip-hop world, Usher proved Sunday that he’s a performer who can’t help but be great. The R&B artist is closing in on a career defined by two decades of sensual club hits and full-on radio bangers, and he can make the most stripped-down set look and sound good. But with the energy and skill of the Roots behind him, he put on a show that was able to pull in elements from rock, jazz, soul, hip-hop and even electronica, bringing a joyful, sultry attitude — he was all flirtatious grins and naughty eye contact — to a band that was already having a ball.
Usher danced almost constantly during the show, sliding and strutting up and down the stage through a collection of hits from his entire career, including a warmly received dip into the late-’90s with “U Make Me Wanna …” and “Nice & Slow.” The artist, impossibly smooth at all times, dictated the vibe of each moment with the way in which he inhabited his body, just as much an instrument for him as his voice.
The Roots lent a crackling energy to Usher’s most booming radio hits, such as “U Remind Me,” “Yeah!”— during which he strolled out into the audience — and “OMG,” as well as newer song “Missin U,” which somehow makes a trap-inspired sound out of a Steely Dan sample. During his most slow-burning, seductive songs, such as “U Don’t Have to Call” and the devastating and brilliant “Let It Burn,” the band pulled back, allowing Usher’s emotive voice, still in beautiful form, do the work.
The whole experience was of watching a group of iconic, experienced performers with natural chemistry having a blast: Usher and Black Thought traded verses together, and at one point the Roots’ percussionist Frank Knuckles (who wore a shirt that read “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter”) bounded away from his drum kit and ran in gleeful circles with Usher’s trio of backing vocalists. There were also a number of “jam band” moments, such as when the Roots’ guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas brutalized his guitar in a glorious solo and their touring DJ Jeremy Ellis somehow used glowing white buttons to shred on a sample of “Freeze Frame.”
Still, Usher was the main event, with many in the crowd grasping the air and singing along to every word. He is effortlessly personable and soulful, and his joy kept the night moving (and sometimes thrusting) along. When he left the stage — seemingly to end the show — without playing “Climax,” it was all just a well-done tease for the audience members who were desperately waiting for that final song. The man delivered, and after “Climax” reached its climax, the audience left the venue satisfied and perhaps, as one starry-eyed fan noted, “so pregnant right now.”