It’s hard to believe another Roots Picnic has come and gone. The feeling is particularly bittersweet this year, in post-Nutter Philadelphia, knowing that The Roots won’t be back next month, as they have for the past eight years, to headline the Welcome America Festival. But the Philly crew-turned-America’s house band certainly made the most of their annual homecoming. Here are some highlights of the day.
Last year, as The Roots Picnic expanded from two to three stages, my main criticism laid in the fact that as the crowd grew, so did difficulty in accessing all there was to offer. But the organizers consistently listen to feedback from attendees and make noticeable changes. This year, the three stages were spread further apart, creating plenty of room to breathe and move between stages. The largest two – the North and South stages – were separated by a spacious concessions area and a large tent where weary picnickers could find shade next to a large monitor to ensure they didn’t miss a moment of the action onstage. As a festival, you could say The Roots Picnic is still in its infant stage, but perhaps growing toward Lollapalooza proportion. The Roots themselves have hinted at the idea in the past, but this year it was clear as the Picnic continued to occupy more territory along the waterfront. Maybe one day we’ll be hopping on the ferry to reach the Camden Stage, you never know. The possibilities are limitless with The Roots Picnic – including the just-announced expansion to a fall edition of the party in NYC.
Pop-R&B vocalist GoGo Morrow opened the North Stage this year. Along with DJ Rich Medina and rappers Lil Dicky and Lil Uzi Vert, Morrow represented this year’s local flavor. As a former backup singer for Lady Gaga, GoGo Morrow brought an intensity and unparalleled focus to the stage – not to mention a ton of fun. Backed by a team of dancers – fondly known as The GoGettes – Morrow’s set easily drew comparisons to Destiny’s Child…and since I’m a sucker for tightly choreographed, I was completely enthralled.
Willow was the second of two superstar progeny to appear at The Roots Picnic. Her set immediately followed that of Lolawolf, the band of Zoe Kravitz. While Lolawolf’s dark, spacey, “too cool for the room” sound was exactly what you would expect from the daughter of a millionaire rockstar, Willow Smith was more soulful, warm and engaging. Humble even, as she punctuated her first song with a deep exhale and the declaration, “I’m so nervous, guys. You have no idea”. It was easy to forget who her father is. That is, until she brought him and DJ Jazzy Jeff out for a performance of the classic “Summertime”…which, I guess you could also the West Philadelphia born-and-raised Fresh Prince as part of the local flavor as well . The surprise caused a mad dash to the stage for those watching from adjacent monitors, as well as a few who probably just wondered what everyone was running toward. But it was one of those moments that left you looking at complete strangers with a laugh like, “that just happened!” It set morale high for the remainder of the day.
ANDERSON .PAAK & THE FREE NATIONALS
With all the extra space to move around this year, The Roots Picnic actually felt pretty laid back. But once Anderson .Paak bounded onstage, it felt like fire had been injected into our veins. Imagine the energy and charisma of James Brown, then imagine all of it confined behind a drum set. Simultaneously tight and freeform, it felt as though .Paak was expanding and contracting, shapeshifting before our very eyes as he played with the darkness of his lyrical matter while staying light on his feet. The result was purely electrifying.
THE ROOTS X USHER
If I may tune into my adolescent self for a moment, please allow me to say, “OMG, URRRRSHER.”
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s address how Usher grew up on Saturday night, living up to the title of “Godson of Soul”. The R&B star appeared after The Roots’ solid 20 minutes of jamming, which included a jazzed-up version of “Don’t Say Nuthin”.
Everyone onstage was dressed to the nines, so you knew something special was about to happen. It seems every year, The Roots try to teach us something with their short time at home. This year’s lesson seemed to be that in a year filled with so many devastating losses in music, the iconic torch has been passed to Usher. That’s a heavy responsibility, but if its one you’re dedicated to, The Roots are the one band to help you prove it. Their set was one deep groove, intersecting The Roots favorites with Usher’s hits. He and Black Thought would play off of one another like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. I particularly enjoyed how “Nice & Slow” bled into “Break You Off”, which blossomed into The Roots’ staple “You Got Me”.
And as the Picnic spread out terrestrially, so did The Roots’ ability to expand into extended jams with the help of Usher’s impeccable bandleader ability. With this being the only time we will see The Roots on our home turf this year, we were given more than our fair share. Whatever they bring next year will be well worth the wait.