Eight things we loved about the new and improved Roots Picnic (and three things we didn’t)

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The Roots | photo by Ben Wong for WXPN | brotherlylost.com

For the twelfth year running, Philly icons and global hip-hop heroes The Roots brought their pre-summer throwdown back to their hometown. The Roots Picnic touched down in its new home at The Mann Center at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 1st, with rap-soul duo &More opening a day of sun, sounds, and multi-sensory experiences, all the way up to the show-stopping performance of The Roots’ breakout album Things Fall Apart, which turned 20 in February. The Key was on hand from bottom to top, and here is what we saw all day — beginning with the immense amount of stuff there was to love.

Roots Picnic | photo by Ben Wong for WXPN | brotherlylost.com

1. Location, location, location

It took all of maybe five minute of being inside the Mann Center’s grounds to appreciate what a vastly improved experience this space was going to be over the Picnic’s previous home at the now-defunct Festival Pier. The sprawling grounds were lush with greenery and filled with shade (as opposed to the bleak asphalt desert of pervious years), with several canopies to congregate under, and a massive, newly-constructed main stage in the space usually held by The Mann’s VIP parking lot. (The venue’s amphitheater stage was technically the B-stage, though the two absolutely felt on equal footing.) There was ample room for people to spread out, move around, and feel comfortable, and even though the show was reportedly close to reaching the space’s 20,000 capacity, it never felt that way. During The Roots’ headlining set, Black Thought told the crowd that Fairmount Park was the setting The Roots always envisioned since founding the festival in 2008, and that having it at The Mann this year was a dream. Please let’s keep it that way for as long as the Picnic may run.

Resistance Revival Chorus | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

2. Hearing the Resistance Revival Chorus lift their voices in song and protest

If you’ve never witnessed a group of thirty singers raising their voices at once, it can be a tremendously powerful thing. For the east coast ensemble Resistance Revival Chorus, the lyrical content and between-song context made the performance even more powerful. This group, which spanned age demographics from 20-something to 70-something, belted out gospel nuggets, protest anthems, and re-worked pop songs in the name of dismantling white supremacy and systemic racism. Their joy was contagious and pure, but they also quoted a reminder from poet Toi Derricotte: “Joy is an act of resistance.” The RRC’s set ultimately advocated for the protection and uplifting of black and brown people, of women, of LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized segments of society. Highlights of their set included Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All” and Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Bound to Lose.”

Siddiq’s Real Fruit Water Ice at Roots Picnic | photo by John Vettese

3. Shorter lines, better food

Though the Roots Picnic did make improvements and advancements over the course of its eleven years at Festival Pier, in 2018 my wife and I still waited in line for two-plus hours to spend entirely too much money on overdone fries and a burger that looked like it had been plucked from the vendor’s grease trap. This year, a no-minute wait to order a vegan burger, tots, and a soft pretzel the size of my face for a bill that was maybe half the cost was very welcome indeed. Shoutouts to Picnic planners for the massive food service improvements, and for being more inclusive of local vendors, like Siddiq’s Real Fruit Water Ice, who I have fond memories of frequenting back in my late-90s Temple days.

Blueface | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

4. Production was efficient, even when the artists were not

Things looked like they were about to go downhill real quick when it was 2:55 p.m. and L.A. rap sensation Blueface had not yet taken the stage for his 2:40 set. Nobody seemed to know where he was or why the delay was happening, but the stage crew was clearly not messing around. At 3 p.m. on the dot, they struck the stage, and began to reset it with drums, keyboards, and amplifiers for Tank and Bangas’ 3:20 set. The New Orleans bounce collective took the stage promptly on time, and even though it seemed Blueface might have possibly been straight up dropped when he didn’t show up, the production team gave him a shot at redemption. When Tank et al wrapped their high-energy, hyper-condensed set (a far cry from the two-hour sprawl of their TLA show), their gear was whisked offstage, Blueface’s DJ gear (a laptop, really) was rushed back on, and he jumped out on the mic within minutes. I caught the raunchy braggadocio of “Next Big Thing,” the moody trap “Respect My Crippin,” and a piece of a dance-off to Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” before I had to dart uphill to the Picnic’s next big thing — a live taping of the Questlove Supreme podcast. It remains unclear how things shook out from there, and whether Tank and/or Queen Naija were shortchanged due to Blueface’s tardiness. All I know for sure is that at 5 p.m., the Black Thought x J Period mixtape went off without a hitch. Talk about efficiency.

Questlove Supreme featuring Common | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

5. Common was an open book on Questlove Supreme

The incorporation of live podcast tapings has been a unique diversion in the Roots Picnic’s recent years, and the Questlove Supreme is always a not-miss one. Not only do you get to see the Roots drummer in relaxed, casual, conversational mode — a bit different from the percussive intensity of his performances at the end of the Picnic — but you hear the engaging rapport he has with his co-hosts and fellow music aficionados Laiya St. Clair, Phonte Coleman of Little Brother, “Suga” Steve Mandel, “Boss” Bill Johnson, and “Unpaid” Bill Sherman…not to mention the rapport he has with his guests. For this taping, it was legendary Chicago rapper Common, who rushed to the Mann from a speaking event at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books (“he was literally in Germantown seven minutes ago when I talked to him on the phone,” said Quest). Common talked about his second memoir, Let Love Have The Last Word, and it served as a springboard for deeply introspective conversations about his relationships with his father, with his daughter, with his partners over the years, and with the music industry, and whether one is truly able to maintain a successful career as an artist while having stable and healthy relationships and friendships in their personal life. Heavy.

Black Thought x J Period mixtape ft. Yasiin Bey | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

6. Yasiin Bey was clearly having the best time ever during the Black Thought x J Period mixtape

When Questlove wrapped up his first Picnic appearance of the day, his fellow Roots co-founder Black Thought took his live mixtape with DJ J Period to the amphitheater stage. It’s become the Picnic’s best place to expect the unexpected, with Thought bringing out heritage rappers to join him on highlights from their career, and those rappers typically bring all their (unannounced) friends. While this year’s mixtape was more tightly focused around Yasiin Bey, that was fine since he looked like he was having the time of his life up there on the stage, working the outstretched hands in the front row, rocking the crowd with bangers like the Black Star favorite “Definition.” But there were surprises in the wings, like Maimouna “Mumu Fresh” Youssef and Pharoahe Monch, who rocked the crowd with “Simon Says.”

H.E.R. | photo by Ben Wong for WXPN | brotherlylost.com

7. Everything about H.E.R.

Gabi “H.E.R.” Wilson is the truth. The immensely talented, tremendously charismatic California singer-songwriter opened her sundown set on the mainstage by playing practically every instrument onstage at least once — bouncing between bass, acoustic guitar, keys, and congas — and after setting the bar that high for herself, proceeded to deliver an enthralling hour-long performance of jams from both her 2017 self-titled debut and the two-part I Used to Know Her project from last year. “Best Part” and “Hard Way” were massive standouts, and as if the set wasn’t high-energy enough, she shut it down with a note-for-note, spot on performance of the guitar solo from Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Chills.

The Roots | photo by Ben Wong for WXPN | brotherlylost.com

8. Watching Things Fall Apart come to life before our eyes

Maybe it was because their set got rained out last year, but The Roots had a renewed vigor in their commanding headlining performance — but before they took the stage, poet Ursula Rucker did, in haunting light and fog, reciting “Return to Innocence Lost,” her chilling poem about cycles of violence and abuse that brings The Roots’ 1999 album Things Fall Apart to a haunting close. From there, The Roots were locked in and on fire as they tore across the record — Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson doing laps around the stage during “The Next Movement,” Thought spitting nonstop bars and not dropping a lyric for the first half hour, before he was joined again by Bey (“Double Troublle”) , and by Common (“Love of my Life”), and other original contributors to the album. Things got off on those delightful Roots tangents when Beanie Sigel used his guest spot on “Adrenaline!” to welcome Freeway to the stage — Philadelphia City Councilperson Darrell Clarke had taken a moment before the set to declare June 1 “Philly Freeway Day” — and then welcome Young Chris and Neef Buck for several minutes of energy and elation, while Common led the show off on a stump-the-band medley of soul and hip-hop classics. Most thrilling of all, Jill Scott emerged to sing the hook to “You Got Me” — which she wrote, even though it was sung on record by Erykah Badu — and used the opportunity to close the day with pure magic, elation, and her hit “A Long Walk.”

With all these high points, it’s hard to imagine that Roots Picnic fell short in any kind of way, but a few experiential points were lacking, and I’d be remiss not to acknowledge them.

1. Chatty chatty corners of the crowd who DNGAF that a concert was going on

Out of the control of any of Roots Picnic’s organizers or artists, for sure…but seriously, people, why would you as an audience member pack yourself in the thick of the main stage crowd if you’re not going to even watch the show that’s up on stage? Toby Nwigwe, Ari Lennox, and even H.E.R. had their dynamic performances undermined by people having loud, unrelenting conversations about nothing at all related to the festival. As much as the Roots did an amazing job making the Mann Center setting super relaxed and casual this year, some of the audience took that to heart a little too much. Maybe y’all can watch from the back or the sides if you don’t care about what’s on stage next time? Please?

2. Misinformation dissemination around the 21 Savage scuffle

Disclosure at the top of this: I did not actually witness the fight that broke out during ATL rapper 21 Savage’s performance, so take my perspective with a grain of salt. However, it had not yet happened during the portion of his performance that I did see…and by the time I returned to the main stage after hearing Raphael Saadiq croon with the Soulquarians, there was no sign of anything amiss. What evidently went down in the middle (as I found out from various “ARE YOU OKAY” texts, to which I was like “uh, yeah, why?”) was a scuffle of some sort, followed by a surge in the crowd trying to get away from the scuffle, followed by people in the fray nervously Tweeting that they thought somebody had a gun, followed by clickbait-driven news outlets with zero reporters on the ground picking up on the hashtag and reporting that there was in fact a shooting at the Roots Picnic, and then walking it back while still using the questionable word “stampede” in their reportage. Which, maybe don’t talk about the highly diverse audience of a highly diverse music festival using a term that’s typically used to describe animals? ANYHOO, all this is not to minimize the intensity of what happened in the moment, or the experience of the five people who were injured — I’ve been in similar situations, and it’s absolutely terrifying as it’s unfolds. It’s more about the media response, and a reminder that those tasked with spreading the word of what’s happening in the world, Roots Picnic and beyond, need to exercise responsibility in making sure information is getting out there accurately; your viral headline does not justify exacerbating an already scary situation. Besides, sensationalizing one aspect of the day is super reductive — if you believe the Brooklyn Vegans and Rolling Stones of the world, the narrative of the day is something that was contained and over with in the course of 45 minutes.

3. Some non-TFA Roots cuts would have been nice

As we exited The Mann Center, my wife and I exchanged thoughts on the day: best Roots Picnic ever? Absolutely, unequivocally. Best Roots set we’ve seen? Almost. The band was on fire, as I said, and gave a perfect performance of a perfect album. The only thing that was missing was any material from The Roots’ other ten albums. For certain, the side-trips and tangents, covers and surprises are staples of any Roots show — it’s a jam sesh as much as a concert — and the hour-plus record in full was filled out with another hour of that stuff. Still, it would have been sick to hear some “Proceed” or “Section,” some “Break You Off” or “Don’t Say Nuthin,” some “How I Got Over” or “Game Theory.” It’s cool, though. Gives us a reason to return next year. Check out a gallery of photos from Roots Picnic 2019 below, and check out more of photographer Ben Wong’s work at BrotherlyLost.com.

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