Pharrell Williams, co-leader of rap-rockers N.E.R.D., looked out from the Jones Beach stage on Friday night and was frustrated by what he saw.
"Will the people in the back please move down to the front?" he said, addressing the small clusters of concertgoers sitting in the theater's otherwise empty upper decks. "I can't do the show like this. I'm not feeling this distance s--. This tour's supposed to be about bringing people together."
True enough. The Sprite Liquid Mix tour, which Williams' band was headlining, was one of the most inclusive, and promising, concert bills of the year: eleven acts ranging from soulful funk (Robert Randolph and the Family Band) to jammy rock (O.A.R.) to boundary-breaking hip hop (the Roots).
The problem was that the fans just didn't show up. At the evening's peak, the theater was barely half-full.
Still, those who did make it to Jones Beach got plenty of top-notch music for their trouble. Pedal-steel guitarist Randolph was an early highlight, ripping into Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" with a true showman's flair.
Rapper Talib Kweli, flanked by a deejay and two female backup singers, followed with infectiously offbeat rhymes on tracks like "Too Late," "Move Somethin'," and the tongue-tripping "Get By."
Sounding more like prime '70s Santana, P-Funk or Miles Davis than a hip-hop outfit, the Roots played a compelling, non-stop hour-long set, incorporating not only songs from their own "Things Fall Apart" and "Phrenology" albums, but also snippets of Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy," the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night," Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It," and Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love."
Led by baby-faced Williams and his partner, Chad Hugo - aka megaproducers the Neptunes - N.E.R.D. finished the night off with tasty doses of funk ("Provider"), soul ("Frontin'") and semi-psychedelic pop ("Run to the Sun").
The show's only weak link was O.A.R., a well-scrubbed bunch of sub-Dave Matthews college rockers. When they asked Randolph up for a cameo on "Anyway," their music took flight. But on their own, they lacked fire.