Every year, the Roots Picnic inches closer to Philly musical utopia. The pre-summer day fest is curated by local hip-hop heroes The Roots, the self-proclaimed hardest working band in America. True to their own innovative and barrier-breaking approach, the lineup is always a unique, eclectic and interesting trip. The setting and its vibe has historically been a bit rockier, beset by exponentially swelling crowds and typically sweltering heat beating down on the minimally shaded asphalt of Festival Pier.
But the eighth annual installment of the Picnic yesterday, while not perfect, was a tremendously positive event, with major improvements in the layout and organization of the festival and a trimming of the musical fat (for the most part).
On the lineup end of things, the Philly representation beyond the festival’s namesake was great to see, from Ill Fated Natives backing Brianna Cash to King Britt‘s off the hook DJ set and Donn T‘s opening performance under the tented Oasis Stage. Phantogram stylishly bridged the world of modern rock, EDM and hip-hop; Toronto R&B star The Weeknd gave an unreal performance that inspired Teddy Pendergrass levels of devotion from the shrieking front row. The Roots killed it as always; Erykah Badu was surreal and serene. Of the main stage acts, I only missed A$AP Rocky while on a cell phone charging break, but based on the 20 minutes of dead festival air while he made his way to stage, followed droning bass booms in the distance and disappointed shrugs from fans I talked to afterwards, I didn’t miss much.
Speaking of that cell phone charging break, I would be remiss if I didn’t applaud the Picnic (and Pier) for becoming much more audience-friendly since I last attended in 2013. Items of note: water stations. OMG water stations. That in itself was a godsend. More food vendors were in attendance and, yeah, some of them had really long lines, but if you wandered around a bit, you could find others with a shorter wait. The asphalt surface of the pier was covered in sand, giving it a beachy vibe of sorts, but more importantly, deflecting the brutal sun. Adding a third stage, along with what seemed like an acreage of space around the perimeter, opened things up considerably and allowed the crowd to disperse somewhat comfortably around the grounds. For most of the day, it didn’t feel like I was at an enormous festival. Except for that late afternoon point where I tried to cross between stages; A$AP Mob devotees were packed outward from the main stage while the DJ Mustard fans were packed inward from the harbor stage, creating a city block-long human wall that took over 20 minutes to traverse. That was rough, but thankfully DJ Mustard is really good.
Below, check out a rundown of the artists I caught and a bit about each.
The impressive rock and soul of Donn T got the festival off to a smooth start with great arrangements and a lot of charisma. Yeah, she’s ?uestlove’s sister, but take that out of the equation and it was still really good.
“Everybody rise. No, just kidding, definitely don’t rise.” San Bernadino, California singer-guiatist Moses Sumney was mellow with a capital M, crafting vocal loops and relaxed guitar soundscapes that worked beautifully in the early afternoon sun.
I knew soulful singer-songwriter Brianna Cash was performing this year’s Picnic. I knew she had just recorded a track with Ill Fated Natives. I had no idea that IFN was going to be her backing band yesterday, and the surprising addition had spectacular results.
If the awesomely ridiculous party people slang “turnt up” ever gets added to the dictionary, there better be a photo of Rae Sremmurd next to it. The Atlanta-based hip-hop duo has an incredible effect on the crowd, and their energy matches it. “No Flex Zone” is a total earworm to boot. It’s dumb, but fun dumb.
As if to prove why his name is typically preceded by the words “legendary” or “iconic” – or, hell, why it contains the word “king” – iconic Philly DJ legend King Britt‘s afternoon set rocked the Oasis Stage with his trademark retro-futuristic funk / disco grooves. The best was when a circle opened up in the crowd and a dance-off began, total house party style, as you can see below.
King doesn’t always do his thing during the daytime hours, so it’s great to see that it connects just as well in the sun as it does after dark.
I’m admittedly not usually one for reggae, so Jamaica’s Chronixx and the Zincfence Redemption began a bit of an afternoon lull for me. I will say that what could have been a meandering and overly downtempo set rocked hard and loud, which was good surprise. Though it was still pretty meandering.
Afrika Bambaataa is often credited as the grandfather of hip-hop, one of the progenitors and major influencers of the genre. So what the heck was he doing spinning “Jump Around” by House of Pain during his DJ set? Though his hour on the Oasis stage had its highs and lows and questionable musical selections, the breakdancing kid that kicked it off was entertaining.
“I think leather was a bad choice today.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Sarah Barthel of Phantogram makes that joke every time her band plays a daytime set at a summer festival, but they were outstanding yesterday – an always-entertaining bunch that, as I said, has the potential to span genres and demographics. Barthel told the crowd that her bandmate Josh Carter made the beat for “As Far As I Can See” six years ago hoping it would make it into a Jay-Z song. It didn’t, but thankfully that worked out okay for them.
Arcade Fire’s Win Butler was hard to miss as he moseyed around the festival grounds – he’s like six and a half feet tall wearinig a suit jacket, a kerchif and a fedora – but when he took the stage as DJ Windows 98, it still felt like a surprise. Blending afrobeat jams from his DJ rig with live percussion on conga and dumbek percussion, it was the sleeper hit of the afternoon.
The Roots Picnic main stage is pretty massive in scale, but Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, rocks it with the confidence and charisma that only the kind of dude who writes lyrics like his can. (Do some Googling if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Beyond the Pendergrass-ian levels of devotion – well, to be fair, I didn’t see anybody faint, nor were any panties thrown – his songs as well as his band sounds massive in this setting. The opening “High For This” started quiet and swelled to a rapturous crescendo. “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” was explosive front to back. The cover of Beyonce’s “Drunk In Love” became a cathartic singalong. Next to King Britt, the set of the day.
Like I said, our hometown heroes always kill it, but what made last night’s Roots performance unique was the way the focus steered away from a medley of their own catalog (though plenty of that was in there) as much as it highlighted their instrumental prowess and celebrated the music that inspired them.
The former: they jammed the heck out of their set, and practically everybody got a solo. Highlights go to “Captain” Kirk Douglas on guitar – whose energy was in peak form at almost 11 p.m. even though he smoked the Roots Rock Run 5K at 9 a.m. – and Jeremy Ellis, a sampler-based DJ with incredibly nimble fingers that created a incredible digital approximation of two-turntable scratch mixes.
The latter: as the band played “Act too (Love of My Life)” from 1999’s Things Fall Apart – based around the refrain “hip-hop, you’re the love of my life” – into the like-minded “Love of My Life (An Ode To Hip-Hop)” by the night’s featured artist Erykah Badu, they jammed it out into an extended medley of mini-covers. Bits of classics like “The Message” and “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” were thrown in the mix, as well as surprise guests Freeway, YG and The Lox to spit their verses live. (Late in the set, The Weeknd showed up too.)
And of course, the featured artist, R&B innovator Erykah Badu. There were so many things to like about her set, from the way she knows how to make an entrance – on a roller scooter, zipping and spinning around stage, wearing what looks like a Star Wars blast shield over her eyes – to how incredible her voice sounds in person. To the Baduizm classics “On and On” and “Other Side of the Game,” or “Didn’t Cha Know” from Mama’s Gun or “Master Teacher” from New Amerykah Pt. 1. Just wow. She plays the Dell Music Center on August 13th with Estelle; get on it here, and check out a full gallery of Roots Picnic photos below.
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