The 6th annual Roots Picnic brought its trademark mix of sounds and styles to the Festival Pier on a sunny Saturday this weekend. And though the results were also somewhat mixed, the show had more high points than not.
The standout set of the day came from independent rapper / viral sensation Macklemore, who took the stage at the peak of the afternoon’s 90-degree heat. The crowd was at capacity, water was at a premium, and yet it was impossible not to groove to the dude’s lively and charismatic stage show. He was funny (quipping that he and DJ Ryan Lewis “just flew in from Egypt. Or maybe Seattle…” and snatching a fur vest from the crowd for his signature song “Thrift Shop”), he was poignant (introducing “Same Love” with remarks about marriage equality) and most importantly, he was entertaining.
Earlier in the day, fantastic performances were also turned in by pop singer Solange – sister to Beyonce Knowles, who was lively, stylish, and rocked a great cover of Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is The Move” – and Robert Glasper – who embarked on a wild space-jazz jam to a modest crowd as attendees were just beginning to filter in.
The pier’s tent stage housed more of the hard-hitting hip-hop and DJ names on the bill. Philly’s Lushlife played a tremendous set early on. I feel like, for whatever reason, I always wind up seeing the producer / MC (offstage name: Raj Halder) on lineups where he’s playing to indifferent, aloof indie audiences, so it was a treat seeing him rock a packed room of rap fans who were vibing off his delivery, waving their hands and pumping their fists. You could tell Haldar was feeding off their enthusiasm – he fell to his knees atop a stage monitor during a closing performance of “Big Sur” and sounded like he was beginning to lose his voice. I’m sure it was worth it.
Also in the tent, Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ played a hyper set to a hyper crowd, bouncing between beats and tracks with an almost ADD rhythm. Whatever it lacked in focus, it had in energy. Raucous rapper Trinidad James rocked a riled-up crowd early in the day, while Canadian EDM artist A-Trak closed the tent by spinning a winning set to an audience that was waving cardboard cutouts of his cartooney, pixelated likeness.
Only two acts on the lineup were out-and-out disappointments. The set from blues-rock luminary Gary Clark Jr. was hookless and meandering. After a decent start, it devolved into a show of “hey, look how good I am at guitar,” and you could see its dullness reflected in the crowd’s exhausted faces. Likewise, indie electronic goddess Grimes made a solid effort at showmanship by bounding around the stage and bringing out backup dancers, but the music simply didn’t translate live – its repetitiveness and reliance on echoey effects really showed through. Indie R&B act How To Dress Well and rapper Hitboy also made forgettable appearances.
The Roots themselves capped the night with their trademark good-time, fast-motion set, bouncing seamlessly between something like a half-dozen songs in the first six minutes. It was strikingly similar to the set they play on the Parkway each year for Welcome America Festival; these guys are total pros, down to guitarist “Captain Kirk” Douglas and sousaphonist Tuba Gooding Jr. racing laps around the stage and leaping in time to the beat. But the band had a surprise or two up its many sleeves, like bringing breakout Philly rapper Meek Mill out for a cameo appearance at the end of the night and (more exciting to this reviewer) inviting Marsha Ambrosius of under-appreciated soul combo Floetry out to sing the hook on “You Got Me.”
And this year’s “classic hip-hop” headliner, Naughty By Nature, didn’t disappoint either, rocking their lively 90s radio-rap and marking the 20th birthday of “Hip Hop Hooray” with a sea of waving hands and shouting voices as a cool breeze blew in off the Delaware. Conclusion: even when it fell short, The Roots are masters of the mix – classic and emerging, rap to jazz to electronic and rock, all ages, all energized, all wondering what’s to come next year. See photos from the day after the jump.