It would seem only natural that the third annual The Roots Picnic would be a categorically urban event, not just because of its choice line-up of hip-hop, rap and soul artists. So it shouldn’t have been surprising to find that a fence-enclosed, concrete urban jungle, otherwise known as the “Festival Pier” in Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing area, situated only a short distance from the main I-95 would be its location. Past the main entrance, merchants lined the sides as attendees wandered down to the main stage with a great sightline of the Ben Franklin Bridge and a smaller stage covered under a tent.
But the gritty atmosphere did not detract from the music. The Roots made the picnic a diverse family affair. Their friends and guests included Vampire Weekend, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Clipse, Mayer Hawthorne, DJ Jazzy Jeff and many more. Not performing but coming along anyway was another local character, Beanie Sigel, plus I thought I saw Ursula Rucker but did not ask. While the planners kept tight-lipped on the actual schedule, some advance internet speculation that “a classic hip-hop group would reunite” proved incorrect. Alas, the rumors of an appearance from Run-DMC proved unfounded unfortunately.
At 5 o’clock, schedule in hand, I stood expecting to see The Very Best, but instead, I realized the show was running behind as I was introduced to Nigerian soul singer Nneka. Despite her petite figure, Nneka commanded the stage, passionately probing with politically and spiritually tinged lyrics (“The Uncomfortable Truth”). Her music is not as Afro-centric as one might presume but instead showed a diverse range with some rock and soul elements.
THE VERY BEST / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Right after, the stage was quickly set for the Very Best. When the two MCs and DJ stormed on, with a couple of vivacious dancers in tow, their pulsing African rhythms (“Get It Up”) and subsonic bass (“Julia”) brought heat to the audience’s soles. For TVB’s final song, “Warm Heart of Africa”, Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) did not reprise his vocal performance somewhat disappointingly (though it was sampled). But that did not decrease any of the energy. Somewhere near the end, DJ Johan Karlberg displayed a Flyers t-shirt giving local sports fans another reason to cheer.
MAYER HAWTHORNE / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Mayer Hawthorne and the Country were up next, bringing their powerful Detroit R&B to the Philly streets. Dressed in a dapper suit, Hawthorne brought out all the hits from his album A Special Arrangement. Warm and bouncy songs like “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’”, “The Ills” and the aptly titled “I Wish It Would Rain” were perfectly suited for the sunny, outdoor picnic carrying his earnest voice out over a crowd stomping along.
As ?uestlove finished up a session with DJ Jazzy Jeff on the second stage, people thronged to the tent while the main stage was prepped for the events hosts. The Legendary Roots Crew took the main stage after eight pm diving into a song or two from their forthcoming release, How I Got Over plus recent hit “Here I Come”. Former bassist Leonard Hubbard made a special appearance adding his heavy touch to songs like “Proceed”. He also gave a scorching solo, mixing in at least one famous recognizable vamp (from Sugar Hill Gang). Meanwhile, Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson, also sizzled, hopping around the stage while shouldering his massive instrument.
JOHN LEGEND / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Then with the Roots welcoming, John Legend made his way on to share the stage. Fittingly, he has collaborated with the Roots on an album coming out later this year, Wake Up!. Seated at an elegant piano, John Legend introduced a Bill Withers song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed”, about a young man injured during the Vietnam War, by prefacing “It seems America is always at war.” They also performed a cover of Baby Huey & The Babysitter’s song “Hard Times”, with its funky piano groove and ?uestlove, plus another drummer, pounding away.
Photo: Sachyn Mital
Legend’s charisma went far, but he was surpassed by the energetic combination of three Wu-Tang members, Ghostface, Method and Raekwon. When these rappers were on, the main stage area was besieged by fans aching to get close. Method spit his verses, and some water, at the audience doing “Da Rockwilder”, before climbing over the security barrier and tumbling into the crowd. The Wu Tang Clan trio also performed, “Its that Wu Shit”, “Bring the Pain” and “Cream”. The sound system must have maxed out from the combined strength of those on stage.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND / Photo: Sachyn Mital
Two hours later, after the Roots wrapped up, the stage was set for the final act, Vampire Weekend. Many had questioned the logic behind making them the finale. Perhaps it was to let the families who came for the Roots get on home before it was too late. But undoubtedly their music, with its calypso and African vibes, was a welcome addition. Koenig and the band’s set mixed songs from both their releases including latest single “Cousins” and older ones like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Oxford Comma”. They invited the crowd to sing-along with “Blake’s Got a New Face” while the trippy beats of “Giving up the Gun” got a severely thinner crowd dancing.
All day and night long, the music at the Roots Picnic was loud, crisp, engaging and diverse. With the inclement weather holding off, all the elements successfully blended to create a great outing. The wide range of musicians demonstrated why the Roots are more than a crew but rather Philadelphia’s finest musical family.