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Grammys 2012: Childish Gambino, Shaggy Take the Stage at 8th Annual Roots Jam

Donald Glover
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Donald Glover, aka "Childish Gambino."

Newcomer Elle Varner performs Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You” at the House of Blues event.

Speculation ran rampant at the open-to-the-(ticketed)-public annual pre-Grammy party/concert thrown by hip-hop consortium the Roots this year, as it did at any gathering on this night: how would the chameleonic band pay tribute to the late Whitney Houston, especially on a night usually abetted with star-studded drop-ins and unexpected covers? Rumors and conjecture flew around the packed room (who'd sing “I Will Always Love You?” Adele? Goapele? Chaka Khan?) until the band hit the stage around 11:30 – and opened with no acknowledgement of the tragedy, instead entering one by one until the full band was onstage, and they could blast through “Dun,” from last year's terrific “Undun.”

But unlike previous years, this wasn't quickly followed by a special-guest barrage: other than soul singer Bilal dropping a bit of the chorus of “Hey God 2.0,” the first half of this iteration of the Roots jam played, well, not like much of a jam at all, but rather like a typical Roots show (the band, incidentally, was nominated for a Best Traditional R&B Grammy on Sunday, for “Surrender,” a collaboration with Betty Wright). As strong as the band is – and they've always been one of the most unstoppably vibrant, musically eclectic, fascinating-to-watch live acts in hip-hop – that played as something of a disappointment, given the barrage of superstars that's taken the stage with the group in previous years (former guests include everyone from Khan to Jay-Z to Cee-Lo).

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So, it's no surprise that the excitement level in the room rose as guest performers hit the stage, even if none of them were of a pedigree more substantial than the Roots themselves. The litany of unexpected performances started with an impressive beatbox blast from genre master Rahzel, seguing into a collaboration with 90's dancehall hitmaker Shaggy, who took the time to call-and-response with the audience during an extended set of his biggest hits: “Boombastic,” “Angel,” and “It Wasn't Me,” playfully tossing rhymes back and forth with a pompadoured, vest-wearing hype-man who looked so throwback-y, it's as if he stepped right out of the Peach Pit After Dark.

Immediately following Shaggy's warm up, rapper Pras Michel – aka The Forgotten Fugee – emerged, reminding the audience he was once as famous as his former bandmates Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean even as a backup singer took lead on “Ready or Not” and “Killing Me Softly” – a song it appeared The Roots hadn't yet learned. That's not a knock – rather, the most impressive moment of the night came subtly via guitarist Kirk Douglas, who touched his headstock to his ear as he was searching for the right key, which he then called out to the rest of the band as they knocked, effortlessly, into the song's diva-riffic chorus.

Speaking of divas, soulstress India Arie looked nearly regal in a pulled-up head-wrap as she sang the chorus to “You Got Me,” but the showstopper was newcomer Elle Varner, a mess of afro'd hair, geek-chic glasses, and belly-baring shirts who finally honored Houston with an impassioned version of her hit “Saving All My Love For You,” desperately reaching for (and mostly hitting) the high notes that Houston found so effortless.

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A multi-genre jam followed, with southern-rocking guitar slinger Warren Haynes and New Orleans funkiteer Trombone Shorty trading licks as newcomer rapper Childish Gambino (the nom-de-rap of comedian Donald Glover) spit a verse. And though the night ended shortly thereafter, following a rousing Roots-only performance of their biggest hit, “The Seed,” without any help at all, it felt like a victory lap: a band this consistently impressive may be enhanced by their guests, but clearly they don't need them, after all.