Words & Images by: Jake Krolick
The Roots Picnic :: 06.06.09 :: Festival Pier @ Penn's Landing :: Philadelphia, PA
When it comes to a Philadelphia royal family no one can touch The Roots (well maybe the Phillies). They are as embedded in the hearts and musical pulse of the Illadelph as anyone one else in our cities long and vibrant history. Without much trouble you could hear a little bit of The Roots sound in every band performing at their second annual picnic. Their all-encompassing approach to hip-hop slurped-up and spit out a diverse array of musical genres with grace and armloads of style. The sold-out event at Festival Pier @ Penn's Landing was the perfect location for them to show us exactly why they are one of the greatest live hip-hop acts in the universe.
|The Roots :: 06.06 :: Philly|
Currently commuting from Philly to NYC as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Roots sure brought the numbers out and about for a homespun get-down that kicked off the summer in style. As the afternoon sun burned down on the Ray-Ban and neon sporting youngsters, a nice number of aging fans wearing time-worn Public Enemy garb were offered another memory blast from those late '80s/early '90s. Never underestimate this crew from the 215 (area code), who opened Saturday's festivities on the main stage with a dance crew, The Jabbawockeez, and special guest MCs Jordan Knight and Donnie Wahlberg of New Kids On The Block (really) fame. Sure it was cheesy, but Donnie Wahlberg went tête-à-tête with Black Thought for a few rounds of a freestyle session and then left the stage by saying that he was just thrilled to be standing on this side of the Delaware River with these legends.
The mid-afternoon set by The Roots was tight, on-point hip-hop that featured plenty of flying beach balls and a short stint of music including a cover of Kool & The Gang's "Jungle Boogie" anchored by Questlove's steady beats. His kick drum thunder made it official that The Roots Picnic had begun. Keeping the main stage crowd entertained between sets was DJ Cash Money pumping out plenty of old school jams including a stellar combo of Sister Nancy's "Bam-Bam," Biz Markie's "You Say He's Just a Friend" and bunches of Marva Whitney.
|Jordan Knight w/ The Roots :: 06.06 :: Philly|
The main stage was graced early with Elevator Fight, featuring a lively Zoe Kravitz (daughter of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz) mixed with the bass playing of Philly's own Bodega and a few other musicians. Their raucous rock was just the jolt of caffeine needed for a lazy afternoon crowd. Bus Driver's splash of indie hip-hop was greeted with more flying beach balls as the rapid-mouthed MC spouted rhymes about the first black astronauts. His pink tee and brown deck shoes matched his spirit and his hand motions were not unlike TV on the Radio's supercharged frontman Tunde Adebimpe.
The Brooklyn Afrobeat torch bearers Antibalas amped the crowds even more as a war-painted Duke Amayo and the grooviest horn section this side of New Orleans went at it. Antibalas' trumpeter Jordan McLean, saxophonist Stuart Bogie, trombonist Aaron Johnson, and baritone sax wiz Martin Perna were arguably the busiest musicians of the day playing with Public Enemy, TV on the Radio and their own band. At one point during the 10-minute "Indictment" jam, Stuart Boogie led fans in an exercise of crowd participation asking that one side of the venue be 'patience' and the other half be 'persistence.' I saw Mike Gordon try a similar exercise at the All Good Festival last year and watched this fail just as miserably. Let it be known that afternoon crowds are lethargic and even simple exercises don't work. No worries though, Antibalas just blasted the failed effort away in a barrage of wishes that Dick Chaney be indicted before they finished the second most danceable set of the day.
I've recently learned that the picnic was an effort by Questlove to bring more eyes to the promising Philly music scene. This festival is about celebrating all things Philadelphia so when Philly native Santigold — sporting a grandma style purple and white '80s workout outfit - grabbed her piece of the main stage folks went wild. Santigold absolutely glowed, and it wasn't because two shiny, gold clad dancers flanked her. Nope, it was all about Santi's huge smile and her Missing Persons sound meets Yeah Yeah Yeahs style, all shot up with rock steady beats and New Wave oddness. Her cover of Soulja Boy's "Turn My Swag On" had the natives jumping all over the place in a 6,500+ person dance party. As she performed "You'll Find a Way" the blasts of bass left us shuddering. Her voice dove and wound with her hands, but echoed with a soul that crept up our spines as the exotic sounds leaked from the enormous speakers and blossomed with electric life. She was just so damn adorable that you forgot how serious she was about the music. Between songs, she paused to deal with some low-end issues that had plagued the sonics. Her prize, "Creator," which emerged bleeping and hissing steam so clearly that it was the best sound of the day.
|Santigold :: 06.06 :: Philly|
On Saturday Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys blasted-out their minimalistic sludgy-blues rock as grand and ballsy as ever. Waves of deliciousness poured out Auerbach's guitar on opener "Thickfreakness." The sludgy blasts washed over Carney's drum kit that was adorned in the late afternoon sunlight. The Akron, Ohio twosome burnt rubber for nearly an hour. Their impressive set touched on old songs and also new ones from last year's acclaimed Attack and Release, including a massively distorted and reverberating "Psychotic Girl." Their only downfall was Auerbach actually blowing up his guitar amp three songs before the set was supposed to end. The five minutes of delay in the rising action made their train lose its steam.
Back in the massive air-conditioned tent a sizable crowd of youngsters clung to the stage awaiting another Ohioan, Cleveland's Kid Cudi. It was a sign of the times when the old Floetry artist Amanda Diva attempted to hype the crowd with some Public Enemy lyrics, crying, "Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant..." She held up the mic hoping that the audience would rap the third verse from "Fight the Power" but most of the crowd was unwilling or just too young to know the words. For me, it was an introspective moment, a sign that my generation is getting older and this younger generation must look like we did to our elders who watched us go crazy for artists like Public Enemy back in the day. After Kid Cudi chugged a beer and led the crowd in a sing-along of "Day and Night," they attacked the outdoors and ate up most of Public Enemy's set. Then, while we sat fading after P.E. the crowd batted arms with as much energy, if not more, for Asher Roth's raps about being in love with pot and college. Oh to be an Energizer bunny all over again.
|The Black Keys :: 06.06 :: Philly|
In 1988, I was 13 and filled with the angst of my parent's recent divorce. Public Enemy's album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was my anthem. Seeing them perform one of the most influential rap albums ever, backed by The Roots and a five-piece Antibalas horn section, was the clear and undefeated highlight of the day. No, scratch that, the year! Chuck D and Flava Flav, the ever evolving lyrical anarchists, performed the album in reverse and brought the noise for over an hour. They kicked off with an aggressive skull-cracking version of the album's closer "Party For Your Right To Fight" and ended with "Bring The Noise." The stage was packed from front to back with percussionists, guitarists, a few keyboards, Questlove on the drums, two DJ's, Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr" Bryson, Professor Griff, and Black Thought. Flava Flav was unexpectedly toned down in an orange suit sans hat and shades, but an enormous timepiece still swung from his neck as he bounded around the stage as youthful as ever. Chuck D owned the mic with delivery like no other and this rap star needed no gold chains to show his prowess. It was a beautiful and loud tribute to their fanatical Bomb Squad productions of yesteryear. The all-star backing band breathed new life into hit after hit as they reinvented the harshness of the album's sound with an organic, urgent horn-driven funk and hardcore rhythm that embellished upon many fond memories. After a "Fight The Power" encore, Flav Flav lingered on stage. Even his nonsensical rants couldn't damage this last 20th anniversary revival.
Looks of shock were everywhere and it took a whole bottle of water to quench my thirst after that set. How could you follow that act? Answer – you couldn't. The sound fell apart for TV on the Radio's set – 'muddy' doesn't begin to cover it. The energy that had been surging through the crowd only minutes before had faded. When their hit "Wolf Like Me" fell short in making the masses go wild, then you knew something was up. Still in wonder over P.E.'s earlier performance, drummer Jaleel Bunton yelled, "Public Enemy — holy shit!" Tunde Adebimpe bounced across the stage and really gave it his all for "Shout Me Out" and "Dancing Choose," as the huge blasts of noise made his vocals almost indistinct. Despite the sound, TV on the Radio and the Antibalas horns poured passion into the performance and they would have been better suited earlier in the evening.
|Public Enemy :: 06.06 :: Philly|
The Roots retook the stage after 11 pm. It was like finishing a massive climb and approaching the summit. As we looked back, behind us lay a wake of artists and performances all leading to this last set. The Roots did not disappoint and their jam-filled closing set seemed to contain only a few Roots tunes, with the highlight being a 20-plus minute version of "You Got Me." I doubt one song was ever able to capture all of the emotion and styles of one day so well. This never-ending song captured The Roots' magic and contained so much history in sound that the song in itself was its own playlist. It included some reggae, some hard-rock, a little classic soul, bits of George Thorogood's "Bad To The Bone," Guns N' Roses's "Sweet Child Of Mine," Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," Muddy Waters's "I'm A Man" and a few fake endings - the whole kitchen sink was shoved into this behemoth. In between, The Roots worked in bits of their own songs but the hour set came off as one monster jam. The Roots Picnic exemplifies Philadelphia in all the best possible ways. The Roots seamlessly bridge all things spectacular about music's many genres as well as the medium's ability to bridge the generation gap. Hats off to them and to the Picnic's huge, yet peaceful crowd. This event is one for the record books, and here's hoping that it will continue to grow in the years to come.
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