Surprise After Jaw-Dropping Surprise at the Roots Inaugural Picnic in New York City

by Dominick Grillo

12 October 2016

It took a few days to reduce the frequency of declarations of affection towards the Roots Picnic that burst from my mouth to random passersbys.
 
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The Roots Picnic

1 Oct 2016: Bryant Park — New York

Day One

One of these days everyone is going to get a bit tired of hearing about yet another festival and simply stop showing up to the damn things. That will mean the festival bubble will finally have burst and everyone will have to go back to purchasing tickets directly for the artists they want to see. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your affection for music festivals), that day is barely a flicker of a thought after spending a weekend with my jaw perpetually resting on Bryant Park’s boot-stomped muddy grass, my mind blown straight past the enveloping hug of mountainous skyscrapers and landing somewhere amid the outer rings of Jupiter, and my normally much-too-verbose motor-mouth silenced into devout submission.

The Roots have been throwing their Family Picnic in hometown Philly for nine years, and their inaugural expansion to Manhattan resulted in one of the most impressive musical weekends of my life. With squeal-inducing surprise after surprise and incredible one-of-a-kind performances that quite likely will never again be replicated, The Legendary Roots Crew launched their NY outpost with the skillful touch of masters at work.

Perhaps it was because the new (and much larger) Meadows festival took place simultaneously on the other side of the city that the organizers packed together such an incredible weekend for fans. Or, more likely, it was simply an insatiable desire to make a festival that would be different. Something that would last. Something for their friends and family. A fest that would be closer to a collaborative party, a celebration of the world of music that they know and love, than a quick paycheck.

Taking place at the feet of the gargantuan Main Branch of the New York Public Library system, at the bottom of a valley of steel, the surprisingly petite (for a two-stage affair, anyway) festival grounds meant one could literally swivel 180 degrees at the end of each artist’s set to enjoy whomever was coming next.

With the kind of spot-on precision that is rarely seen at festivals, the last guitar strums and 808 beats barely finished reverberating through the grounds before the following act launched their set. The tight schedule sped forward without any overlapping sets, and the result was an exhilarating, nonstop Netflix-esque music binge that left no room for bathroom breaks, chats with security guards, or a round of blinking-light basketball at the totally unnecessary Roots Picnic Arcade.

Arriving late to Day One due to an unquenchable need for Chinatown dumplings, I walked up as Chargaux, two female Brooklyn string musicians (violin and viola) who add hip-hop beats to their orchestral instrumentation, got the crowd chanting along with millennial-centric lyrics like “Call Sallie Mae and let the hoe know, I ain’t never gonna pay my student loans” and “What does that emoji mean?”

The busking vets have spent the past five years hustling throughout the city, but won’t be sticking around much longer. With a final ode to the countless underpaid New Yorkers trying to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities (“We live in Bed Stuy, because the rent is too high. We’re leaving Bed Stuy, because the rent is too high.”), they revealed they are moving to Atlanta in a few days.

Jungle Brothers, the classic hip-hop/house pioneers, sport a bit more grey these days, but they ran around the stage with enough vigor that audience members began to question whether or not the members were actually cyborgs. Okay, wait. It’s possible that I was the only person who thought that, but the evidence seems clear enough; any group of 40 to 50-ish year old men who can dance better than myself are most definitely not human.

After the Brothers wrapped their set, I headed back to the front entrance to await the arrival of my buddies Pretty Boy and No-nickname Holly while simultaneously missing the entirety of Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan’s standup set. Crap. Thank goodness Pretty Boy bought me a beer and gave me a hug and once again my spirits were lifted to the stratosphere.

Watcheing Kevin Gates perform in a thawb, the traditional robe worn in Arab countries, I wondered, was he making a political statement amid hard-hitting statements like “I look like I been ballin’, Cause I’m really ballin’”? Unlike many of the other artists of the weekend, Gates neither implored the crowd to vote nor made jokes at the expense of America’s favorite/reviled wispy haired political candidate, so the question remains.

Anyone who doesn’t have a gigantic crush on ?uestlove by now should probably be examined for scientific purposes. Not only does the dude rock out with the best live band hip-hop group of all time, record tons of music with and for other artists, write, act, have numerous public interest ventures (register and vote!) and businesses, but his love and encyclopedic knowledge of music makes him an unbelievable DJ. Prior to the night’s biggest names hitting the stage, the public voice of the Roots threw down one of his always impressive DJ sets. The only problem? ?uestlove’s skills behind the turntables put him so far above the weekend’s other DJs that an apology is almost in order.

From the outside, X Ambassadors seemed to be the odd rock band out in a land of hip-hop and R&B acts, but by the time the gospel-tinged “Hang On” blasted through the crowd and frontman Sam Harris’s enthusiastic dance moves had him bouncing all over the stage, even a sudden influx of Wall Street bros wasn’t enough to diminish the crowd from screaming out the lyrics.

Harris was holding back some serious pipes, as well. Taking “Gorgeous” from a slow burn to an earthquake-inducing rager, Harris drew out the biggest response from the day’s crowd thus far with an incredible high note seguing into a sing-along of the outfit’s monster hit, “Renegades.”

After losing my friends to the allure of the port-o-potty, I stood amidst the swirling crowd. Bros compared the strength of their energy drinks to my left. Dead Heads clutched their healing crystals to my right. A dreadlocked musician recounted trips around the world. A young finance pencil-pusher explained how he ditched his friends and day one of the Meadows to see the Roots put on a party. Everyone had different preferences in music, but they all paid the ticket to get in because they love the magic that comes when these artists get together.

And when the Roots trundled on stage at a prompt 7:30, and everyone’s various beliefs and prejudices and questions and fears and dreams all melted away in a collective shower of bass licks, drum hits, guitar rips, and Roots MC Black Thought’s mental quips, we smiled and hoped the joy would not part with the evening’s curtain call.

Black Lives Matter had been a subject throughout the day, but nowhere was it more evident than during the headlining set. “We dedicate this to anyone who has ever raised a fist,” Black Thought declared to a sea of fists matching his own. Ripping through hits such as “Dynamite” and “You Got Me”, the crowd went absolutely insane as surprise guest Common jumped in from offstage to handle his verse on “Act Too (The Love of My Life)”. Sliding smoothly into a rapid attack of his own hits, Common blasted through classics like “Go,” “The Food”, and “The Light”, before launching into an incendiary political freestyle about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. “Trayvon’ll never get to be an older man,” he passionately rapped to a frozen-silent audience.

With such a large number of people rotating around the stage, it took a moment to realize J. Period, the freakishly talented finger drumming maestro, had stepped behind his kit for his moment to shine. Crafting the beats entirely from scratch, the electro mad scientist wowed the crowd with his dizzying speed that morphed tracks like “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from Rocky, into the Super Mario Bros theme.

Next, John Mayer, guitarist extraordinaire and fresh off a ten-month stint playing with Dead and Co, stepped forward to the audience’s thunderous roar. Displaying the awe-inspiring guitar skills that have transported him from the dreamy pop star of his young career to becoming one of the most respected musicians of the current era, Mayer let a full range of emotions take over his face throughout his solos. Regardless of what his faces may or may not have meant, his fingers kept gliding across the strings as if he made a deal like Robert Johnson’s. Playing through “Paper Doll”, “Gravity”, “Waitin’ on the World to Change”, he ended his own set with a blistering cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine”.

After old Roots member and vocal magician Rahzel wowed the crowd by beat-boxing the beat, chorus, AND vocals to a song (clearly, the dude knows voodoo or something), Dave Chappelle (!!!) popped on stage (“Obviously if I’m out here two things are true. Kevin Hart couldn’t be here and D’Angelo is late.”) looking like he knocked back more than a few drinks (“I look like Morgan Freeman!”).

Making sure to toss a couple of playful shots (“You guys don’t know what I’ve been through… watching Key and Peele do my show for the last five fucking years!”), Chappelle continued the day’s theme with his own Black Lives Matter statement: “The best way to show black lives matter, is to live a good black life. As Kanye West once said, ‘My life is dope, and I do dope shit.’”

At long last, another reclusive genius, D’Angelo, sauntered his way to the stage for the main event. As he lazily meandered around in a circle, a cigarette burning artfully from the tips of his lips, the band prepared itself. Tearing through “The Root” and assisted by John Mayer on classics like “Playa Playa” and “Brown Sugar”, the crowd soaked up the last moments of Day One’s unbelievable performances.

Day Two

After Saturday’s nonstop stream of surprise guest appearances and once-in-a-lifetime musical mash-ups, the bar was set dauntingly high for the final day. Fortunately, Sunday had more than enough “OH MY GAWD” moments to keep audience members playfully arguing over which day was more impressive.

Entering the fest to the tune of Malaysian pop singer Yuna’s recent slow burner, “Crush”, the audience grooved as well as could be expected after their first full day of alcohol, loud music, and standing in a field with a bunch of strangers. Predictably, just about every seat was quickly snatched up in the nearby court area; our collective desire to get closer to the tunes seemed to be overshadowed by the lingering ache of the previous day’s dancing.

But it wasn’t long before the audience regained its strength. EPMD’s Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith arrived on stage with quips “This is for everyone who is 27 – like me!” and the old school hip-hop hits fans have been bumping from boom-boxes for more than 30 years. No attempts to blend in with the current state of hip-hop either: “This new hip-hop is making our kids dumber!” Sermon joked to the mixed-generation crowd.

After a speedy karaoke-esque review of a few of hip-hop’s greatest fallen MCs (Phife Dawg, Biggie, O.D.B., Tupac), EPMD rushed off stage as nearly their complete antithesis yelped out his arrival from across the grounds. Lil Uzi Vert, the latest rapper to blast into the public’s consciousness on the basis of a single (albeit, incredibly catchy) song, ably danced and mumbled his songs across the stage, but it just wasn’t nearly enough to leave his own imprint on the stellar fest. The audience watched with the same kind of detached amusement generally reserved for seeing a friend’s small child continuously fail at the same basic task. Sadly (unsurprisingly?), not even the crowd majority of early 20s white suburban dudes rocking Wu-Tang Clan memorabilia could rally behind Lil Uzi Vert’s undistinguishable brand of hip-hop.

Taking things in a completely different direction, veteran experimental rockers Deerhoof sped through their own set of gleefully undecipherable tunes as pint-sized frontwoman Satomi Matsuzaki kept the crowd entertained with her Tai Chi-esque dance moves. Before finishing their set with a goofy, yet surprisingly sincere, cover of “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” drummer Greg Saunier added some odd comments about Big Brother: “I want to let you know what is going on behind the scenes… Facebook is being checked, the drug sniffing dogs have been trained to sniff for… other things.” Was he making a deadpan joke to a crowd unaccustomed to Deerhoof’s humor or was it a sign of some kind of paranoid dementia?

Swizz Beatz belongs to that most fabled and annoying group of producers: those who make amazing songs but insist on adding their own silly adlibs to the mix. Why does he do it? Why do artists allow themselves to appear alongside unnecessary vocal spasms like “Swizzy” and “Okay”? This is one of the greatest mysteries of the modern era, and I had another chance to ponder it as Swizzy ran through his, unquestionably impressive, long list of production and solo hits. It was a little strange seeing the producer of so many chart-topping songs take center stage to act as a hypeman alongside recordings by DMX, Jay-Z, T.I., Kanye, and many others, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind.

With the sun quickly dropping behind the surrounding skyscrapers, Black Thought and J. Period teamed up on the 6th Avenue stage for their “Live Mixtape” love letter to New York, a who’s who gathering of hip-hop rhymesayers. Starting off with Queens-repping Kool G Rap running through his “Ill Street Blues”, Thought made sure to give a little love to the Midwest (Royce Da 5’9”) and his hometown Philly (Freeway) before tossing it back to New York for Brooklyn’s own Smif-N-Wessun. The crowd barely had time to register their surprise before exploding over the arrival of dexterous wordsmith Pharoahe Monch and then finally an absolute legend in Big Daddy Kane.

Back across to the main stage, New Orleans jazz and funk burst onto the crowd with the arrival of Trombone Shorty. The high-energy band had barely warmed up the audience before being joined by fellow Louisiana denizen Mystikal for a cover of Mark Ronson’s “Feel Right” and a funkified version of the rapper’s monster hit, “Shake Ya Ass”.

Following a brief interlude of hits from DJ Jazzy Jeff, the fest experienced its first delay of the weekend. Fifteen minutes of main stage silence elapsed before David Byrne arrived with a batch of curious, gospel-influenced songs from his upcoming musical about Joan of Arc. And, no, that is not a joke at all. Standing amid a crowd of Wu-Tang Clan fans, it certainly made for a perplexing juxtaposition. On the one hand, no one wanted to insult one of the gods of the indie rock world, but on the other, well, there aren’t many people who are going to be happy listening to a Joan of Arc musical when they expected the Wu-Tang Clan to appear.

Partially redeeming himself (at least in the eyes of the crowd) by ending his set with the night’s sole Talking Heads tune, “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”, Byrne was quickly replaced on stage by Nile Rodgers and Chic. “I know this one!” squealed one mid-20s gal as “Le Freak”’s instantly recognizable refrain got the crowd moving once again.

Rodgers’ career with Chic included some of the biggest hits of the disco era, but the man has also been responsible for an insane stream of monster songs for other artists. In a quick medley, the band torn through smashes like Diana Ross’ ‘I’m Coming Out”, Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family”, and even Rodgers’ recent global smash with Daft Punk, “Get Lucky”.

The weekend’s surprises continued in hip-hop legend fashion as the Sugarhill Gang suddenly walked onstage to perform “Rapper’s Delight” with Chic. As the audience attempted to regain their composure, the stage cleared, the lights dimmed, and a lone upright piano was rolled out. A solitary drumbeat heralded the biggest surprise arrival of the night: Mrs. Swizzy Beatz herself, Alicia Keys. She began the opening verse of “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” from the darkness of stage left, and the band followed her voice straight to the clouds above.

Finishing off her quick set with a song I have shockingly never sung/butchered at karaoke, “No One”, Keys was replaced by yet another unannounced guest, comedian Amy Schumer. Whipping the crowd into a frenzy with her introduction (“They’re known to cause a ruckus. They’ve mingled in the gravel pit.”), finally the hour had arrived. The crowd became a sea of “W’s” as the legendary crew strolled onstage like homecoming kings. Seven members of the crew (only missing Ghostface and the departed O.D.B.) is a pretty good ratio for the notoriously difficult-to-manage outfit.

Giving each member time to shine, the crew rotated amongst themselves like hardened army veterans. As one stepped to the forefront to deliver their moment of screaming aggression, the next stepped to the side in perfect time. The whole thing had the look of a bizarre ballet exercise or some kind of football practice gone off the rails. And with so many people on stage shouting – SCREAMING – words nonstop, it was almost impossible to decipher what the hell everyone was talking about if you weren’t already intimately aware of the lyrics. Not like understanding the words made much of a difference, of course. Simply being able to say you saw The Wu-Tang Clan is a pretty damn cool statement in and of itself. Finishing off the weekend’s surprises with both Redman and O.D.B.’s son popping in for appearances, the entire group ended their set with a raucous “Protect Ya Neck” and sped off stage with barely a backward glance.

After an entire weekend of incredible performances, surprises, and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, there really was nothing left to be said.

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