By: Pete Troshak
The Roots Picnic
Penn’s Landing Festival Pier
Twenty one years to the day after The Roots’ drummer Questlove and singer Black
Thought first performed together busking for change The Roots held their sixth annual summer festival – The Roots Picnic. The Roots are one of rap’s most durable entities, having worked their way up from the streets to survive ten albums and twice as many years. They have played some of the biggest stages in the world and are the house band on the popular Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show. Their picnic is a yearly outdoor concert featuring a lineup handpicked by the group to entertain their hometown crowd and fans and showcase some amazing new talents. This year’s version was even more special than usual given the significance of the date and the fact that the City of Philadelphia had dedicated a beautiful mural to the band the day before.
The eleven hour show consisted of sixteen acts split up between a main stage and a smaller air-conditioned DJ tent. The weather, as it always is during this show, was asphalt melting hot and the show matched the heat of the sun with a series of standout early performances and electrifying sets from two headliners. Solange brought the first big reaction from the crowd with a short set of her dreamy sounding but thorny 80’s vibe-filled pop. Grimes followed, wailing and twiddling knobs on two synthesizers at once while delivering a captivating set of her icy electronic music. Next, DJ Gaslamp Killer electrified a packed and sweaty DJ tent with a kaleidoscopic energetic musical journey that was the best second stage performance of the day. Blues guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. and his crack band followed on the main stage, mellowing out the crowd with an evening set of his powerful brand of electric blues including an eardrum blistering set closing “Numb.”
The two most memorable performances were by the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and The Roots. Macklemore and DJ Ryan Lewis are one of the great success stories of the last year, with their hugely popular independently released album, The Heist, and a string of hit singles including three hundred million plus YouTube viewed “Thrift Shop” video. They opened with the Malcolm Gladwell referencing “Ten Thousand Hours,” a song about the hours and hard work that are required to be successful. Macklemore delivered the song with great conviction; it was obvious that the song represented the long gravel road that he has been on. He has been releasing music since 2000 but spent a long time battling drug addiction and struggling to get his voice heard. He seems to be on a better road now and has formed a successful partnership with Lewis, who on stage is the grounded Yin to Macklemore’s airborne Yang. Macklemore performed with a lust for life; leaping, bouncing and bravely making a couple of trips into the audience. One trip ended with him borrowing a swanky fur vest from a fan that he appropriately wore during a frantic performance of “Thrift Shop” that earned a huge roar from the sold-out crowd. They showed their ability to move the crowd physically with that song, and emotionally with the beautiful crowd quieting ode to sexual equality “Same Love” and a moving late set performance of “Wing$.”
Last but not least were the hosts and the center of attention, the legendary Roots. They claimed the stage and show as theirs, rocking the capacity crowd with an epic and unpredictable two hour set. Their performance included a Tuba player (stage name – “Tuba Gooding, Jr.”), a drum showdown between Questlove and another percussionist, perhaps the world oldest crowd surfer in the form of a sixty year old man, a roaring cover of “Jungle Boogie” and a venomous rendition of their own “Break You Off.” Their set also included some bold guitar work (from a guitar player named Captain Kirk), a display of human beatboxing, and a long set as the backing band for possibly one of the final performances by fellow rap pioneers Naughty By Nature. Late in the show they were joined by up and coming Philly rapper Meek Mill, backing him on some of his songs and bringing the event full circle. The Roots have achieved beyond their wildest dreams, and are unafraid of sharing their spotlight with other performers trying to fulfill theirs and maybe someday have a mural of their own.