Made in America Festival: Labor Day Weekend – Philadelphia

Eakins Oval in Philadelphia has served the local community in a variety of ways. It is much more than a mere traffic circle, and it seems as though, whenever the city wants to celebrate anything, it is done at Eakins Oval. Philadelphians celebrate Independence Day at the oval. The area is also the main viewing area for most every parade that occurs in the city, including the Thanksgiving Day parade. With the iconic “Rocky steps” and the Philadelphia Art Museum as a backdrop, a spectacular view down the Ben Franklin Parkway overlooking Center City and plenty of green space, Eakins Oval is one of the most attractive sites in all of Philadelphia, the birthplace of the nation. It is no wonder that Eakins Oval was also the site of Jay-Z’s Made in America festival over Labor Day weekend.

In addition to the picturesque urban landscape, the festival experience was enhanced by the positioning of the two main stages. The biggest acts were on the Rocky Stage, which was just in front of the “Rocky steps”. Lesser-known artists performed on the Liberty Stage, which was situated perpendicularly to the Rocky Stage. Throughout the day, artists performed 45-minute sets on alternating stages. This set up allowed concertgoers to take in shows on both simply by turning around and walking a hundred yards. The real stroke of organizational genius was in the near rapid fire execution of acts. The festival schedule was available both on the Made in America website and upon arrival. Possessing one meant there was no time wasted waiting for any act to perform. Without delay, or even introduction in most cases, bands would take the stage and do their thing. And with solid lineups on both days, the crowd was surely pleased.

Speaking of the crowd, this had to be one of the most mellow, friendly and happy group of people ever to assemble. The vibe was amazingly relaxed the entire festival. The Philadelphia police on the scene reported no incidents when asked. In fact, concertgoers were so laid back that it seemed as though the performers had a bit of difficulty in getting much feedback from the audience. Some performers handled this better than others. For example, Pelle Almqvist, lead singer of the Hives, was unsatisfied with the crowd’s response and so he commanded them to, “Get your hands up you lazy bastards!”. It was all in good fun though and the crowd cheered while shooting their hands in the air.

An exception to the mellow crowd was found in the Freedom Tent, home for the weekend to the DJ scene. The Freedom Tent was the antithesis of the rest of the festival and had already been spun into a frenzy by Savoy by the time Otto Knows took the stage on Saturday afternoon. The DJs went balls-to-the-walls for the entire weekend and the crowd responded in kind.

Festival organizers seemed to assemble the performance roster with diversity in mind. While organizers could be criticized for not including all rock/pop sub-genres, such as acoustic or folk acts, it would have been difficult to feature every musical style in just 2 days. Instead, the acts that did appear appealed to the widest swath of music fans. Given the factors that limit such events, the Made in America festival was a fairly representative sample of the American music scape. Case in point, Gary Clark Jr. opened the show on the Rocky Stage. Clark Jr. played his brand of blues inspired music at a time when blues rock is no longer at the forefront of music consumers’ preferences, which is their loss because Clark Jr. was amazing.

Just after Clark Jr., over on the Liberty Stage, Prince Royce played to a very young, eager and female audience. Judging by the screaming, Royce did not disappoint his fans, and how could he? Royce is the total heartthrob package. He is good-looking, dapper, smooth, and has a smile that could charm any curmudgeon. Oh yeah, and he has a great voice to boot. It seems that Royce was born to entertain. He knows how to work the crowd to his advantage and does so by reminding them he is single repeatedly. By the time he sang his biggest hit, a remake of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”, the fans were putty in his hands.

Back on the Rocky stage the Maybach Music Group grabbed audience attention, and fans were flooding through the entrances to get to the stage in time. MMG rewarded the crowd with a tight set had the audience rapping along with the group.

One of the highlights of the weekend performed on the Liberty Stage after MMG’s set. Her name — Janelle Monae. Monae’s vocals were unmatched by any act that took the Liberty Stage. In fact, her talent is right there with the likes of Jill Scott, which is unbelievable. Monae was simply a joy to listen to and a joy to watch. Her passion for her performance is obvious in the detail of the stage and the bands’ costuming. Everything on stage was either black, white or both, from the outfits, to microphone stands, right down to her guitarist’s fingernails. Her vocal abilities cross musical boundaries, allowing her to cover Hendrix and the Jackson 5 in the same set. But her original stuff outshines any cover, simply because it is her own. She was totally comfortable either way though, and exhibited a happy-in-the-moment attitude.

Made in America’s line up just kept pushing the ante and winning every time. Each artist brought such talent to the stage that it was hard to miss any moments. D’Angelo was stellar and made the crowd nearly forget about all the great music they had heard up until he took the stage. D’Angelo is a musical workhorse, akin to Bruce Springsteen, but with a technically great voice. D’Angelo must be a DIYer, because he can do it all on stage: sing, play the guitar, play the piano and make the ladies think he is theirs. Yes, he still has it, and the “it” means that sexiness that was the focus of what is referred to as simply “the video”. Anyone who watched any music television in 1999 would have had a difficult time missing “the video” and anyone who saw “the video” has a difficult time forgetting. As evidenced by the reaction of a couple in the audience when D’Angelo performed “Untitled-How Does It Feel?” which gave the lady goosebumps, and her companion stating with astonishment, “But it’s been 15 years since you heard this song!” During the song, she belonged to D’Angelo.

On the Rocky Stage, Passion Pit followed D’Angelo. The band from Boston opened with their most popular song “Take a Walk” getting the crowd really into their set. Passion Pit is multi-talented and their live performance sounds just like their recordings. Lead singer, Michael Angelakos seems to never tire, as he moved constantly across the stage singing directly to the crowd.

The one noticeable glitch of the entire festival occurred just before dub step DJ, Skrillex, took the Liberty Stage. The Dirty Projectors were mostly tolerated by the crowd that was waiting for Skrillex, which evidenced by the “Skrillex” chants that erupted. The Dirty Projectors, while talented, do not seem comfortable with their own sound. In fact, it seems as though they are trying to explore sonic possibilities by taking musical explorations with odd, barking harmonies that are high pitched and totally annoying. It was welcome relief when the speakers on the left side of the stage repeatedly went out. It is unknown, however, if this was some sort of electrical issue or just the stagehands taking pity on the crowd because, once Skrillex took the stage, issues with the sound equipment ceased. Skrillex was able to make the whole crowd bounce at the knees, even if they were not listening and did not realize it. It was quite a sight and a great way to end the performances on the Liberty Stage for the day.

Jay-Z was scheduled to close the first day of the festival on the Rocky Stage, however, after Passion Pit and before Jay-Z, Miike Snow performed. The Swedish/American band pulled all the stops and treated the audience to a great performance, especially during their most popular song, Animal. The band played an extended version that incorporated all elements of light and sound and took the audience on a musical trip that was never tiring.

Once 9:30 rolled around all eyes were on the Rocky Stage and the crowd’s anticipation was palpable. The tension in the air was only relieved once Jay-Z took the stage. The day’s wait had finally paid off the former laid back crowd showered Jay-Z with cheering and clapping. Two song in, and despite the crowd’s adulation, Jay-Z bowed his head and the stage went dark. At each side of the stage, were two enormous display screens that had previously showed the performers, but Jay-Z had a surprise for the audience. The stage remained darken and Jay-Z’s head bowed; the display screens presented a taped message to the crowd from President Obama. To sum up the message is to sum up Jay-Z’s life: work hard and learn from mistakes. The President used Jay-Z as an example in defining “Made in America.”

A fourth festival stage gave a platform to up-and-coming local artists throughout the weekend. However, the second day of the festival featured some of Philadelphia’s own on the Rocky Stage. Santigold opened the day with one of the most original performances of the festival. First, her band wore outfits that included knee high fluorescent yellow socks and hats that made their heads look like white tree stumps. Santigold was accompanied onto the stage by her two dancers during the opening song, “Go!” Throughout the show, the dancers’ choreography was simplistic yet bizarre. One of the dances could only be described as a lazy zombie cat impression. At the height of the bizarre bazaar, two people donned a large white horse costume and performed a choreographed dance routine center stage. Yet, this all worked for Santigold and it is what makes her such a great artist. It would be a failure to write that Santigold is a musical talent and then quickly move on. Santigold’s talent is not limited to the music she writes because she goes beyond the music and creates an entire illusion through the use of imagery, dance and costuming tied together unexpectedly. And that is what made her show so much fun. It was also cool to see her pull a bunch of audience members up on stage to dance during her last song.

Over at the Liberty Stage the crowd was given a history lesson by The Hives while being reminded what rock music sounds like. Up until The Hives, there were no actual rock acts, as all the other performers were either rap, R&B, pop or blues artists. The Hives took the stage in full tuxedos, complete with tails and top hats, which did not encumber front man, Pelle Almqvist. Almqvist, who might be rock’s funniest front man, showed his love by jumping off stage and into the audience. He admitted the band was made in Sweden, not America, and then he reminded everyone that the Philadelphia area was actually New Sweden in 1638. The audience did not seem to care either way as The Hives got back to the music.

Jill Scott walked directly out to the front of the Rocky Stage and got down to business. The Philadelphia native sang her entire set with a big smile on her face. A proud Philadelphian, Scott let the audience know her roots, “North Philly in the house,” and “Temple University in the house”. In addition to her voice, Scott has a very likable quality that attracts people to her. On stage she looked at the audience like she was an old friend and at one point between songs just to smile. For as proud as she is of her roots she seemed humbled by her surroundings. It must have been a surreal experience for her to perform in front of the Art Museum while overlooking Center City. Certainly, in a city so familiar, this must have been a view so new to her. Then she did something unexpected. She brought out fellow Philly native, Eve. After finishing a Scott song the duo went straight into Eve’s hit (with Gwen Stefani) “Blow Ya Mind”. The crowd went nuts, immediately bouncing to the beat and belting out the lyrics. As Eve left the stage towards the end of the song, Scott finished out her set on her own.

While Jay-Z and Pearl Jam each drew a large crowd, no other act was more anticipated than Run-DMC. A banner across the top of the stage read “Jam Master Jay Forever” during the entire set, but it was as if the group never took a hiatus. Reverend Run and DMC were tight. Both seemed at home on stage and it was obvious that they took preparation for Made in America very seriously. While DMC was not wearing his Adidas, the two rappers performed all of their hits, including “My Adidas”, “Tricky”, “Mary Mary”, and, of course, “Walk This Way”. Rev Run repeatedly expressed how good it felt to be on stage again but was saddened that Jay was not with them. As a tribute, Rev Run and DMC gave the stage to Jam Master Jay’s son and DJ, Jam Master J’Son.

Pearl Jam closed the festival with a two hour set that included a guest appearance by Jay-Z. Pearl Jam is one of those bands that never seems to tire on stage. They covered their long career by playing songs from Ten through Backspacer. In between songs, lead vocalist, Eddie Vedder, spoke about political and societal issues that were on his mind. He encouraged the crowd to not let “a certain political party” keep them from voting this fall. His comments echoed what the real theme of the Made in America festival seemed to be; don’t just vote, but vote for President Barack Obama.

View a larger gallery of high res images from the first day of Made in America at PopMatters’ Facebook page!