Roots Picnic 2011 | Philly | Review | Pics

Words & Images by: Jake Krolick

4th Annual Roots Picnic :: 06.04.11 :: Festival Pier at Penn's Landing :: Philadelphia, PA

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The Roots by Jake Krolick
It would be great to tell you that if three was a charm then four was the magic number but in the case of this year’s 4th Annual Roots Picnic there was much to be desired. Perhaps the bar was set too high during years past, whose memories of blazing sets from the likes of Public Enemy, The Black Keys, Santigold, Jay Electronica and others are still fresh in our memory banks. This year’s picnic was plagued with multiple issues that put a damper on the day at Philadelphia’s Festival Pier at Penn's Landing. Every time the crowd started to gain steam some sort of monkey wrench - sound issues, missed set times, a poorly matched performance - was tossed at us.

What didn’t work? The Dismemberment Plan and Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti both had their own special qualities, but the reunited Dismemberment Plan’s version of pop rock definitely did not set the place on fire. Then, Ariel Marcus Rosenberg’s onstage announcement of having voice problems as he chain smoked through his set lacked any soul or punch to remove the lackluster mood at The Root’s own backyard shindig.

Cupcakes by Jake Krolick
Other early sets from Sweden’s bass heavy electro pop outfit Little Dragon and local hip-hop youngsters OCD picked up steam, but with a new schedule featuring 30 minute sets it was hard to get comfortable. Each set was over so fast it was like you were getting a sample at the grocery store. With a stage full of their friends, OCD’s DeQuincy “Moosh” McRae and Oliver “Twist” Feighan displayed boundless drive as they vibrated the tent with “Wake Up” and “Live It Up.” If the duo was trying to one up their hero Mac Miller then they seemed to succeed as a crowd hungry for hip-hop showed more hands in the air during OCD’s set then the later evening set with the larger star.

The sun slipped behind a gray veil of afternoon clouds and the breaks in the outside action made for a lazy afternoon. With Vitamin Water covering the venue, four year Picnic veteran Amanda Diva riled the crowd with snippets of hip-hop trivia, call-outs for crowd MCs and an occasional ad-libbed rap over the DJ’s mix of old and new school hip-hop favorites. This new 30-minute fast digestion formula might have worked for main stage sets, but inside the tent there were growing issues that knocked most sets off schedule. However, Hank and Cupcakes made the best of their slot and were one of several afternoon highlights. This Brooklyn duo consisted of Hank on bass in a green jump suit and heavily smeared lipstick and his counterpart Cupcakes on drums with his upper torso wrapped in florescent pink tape. The duo threw down thumping dance rock out like a machine fueled by Saturday Night Fever VHS tapes and Matt & Kim mp3’s. Their songs “Ain’t No Love” and “Pleasure Town” featured heavy funk and 70s disco patterns that burned with sex and emotion. Cupcake’s contagious drumming energy, powerful voice and wild costume evoked squeals from the crowd. After their set the duo stuck around for the rest of the afternoon and could be seen all over taking the scene. Their colorful energy and oddball musical integrity was most appreciated at an event in danger of becoming boring.

Esperanza Spalding by Jake Krolick
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros had another round of sound problems in the form of a giant rolling bass boom that plagued the stage during “Up From Below.” Before they were remedied Alex Ebert attempted a bit of a rap over the bass blasts that seemed to amuse the diverse group of onlookers. Ebert climbed into the crowd as they ended with “Home,” and someone near the front tossed Ebert a shiny, white and orange pair of vintage Bo Jackson Nikes to hang around his neck as an honor fitting for the Roots Picnic. The shining moment showed how a diverse line-up could work well when connections were made with the audience.

Esperanza Spalding connected immediately with the crowd, and many were desperate to have her onstage longer. It helps when you snag a Grammy and are backed by the Roots drummer Amhir "Questlove" Thompson and guitarist Kirk Douglas. She asked the crowd, “Who say’s jazz is dead?” before setting down her upright bass and strapping on a Fender. Spalding than proceeded to carve out one of the deepest, bawdiest pockets that the Festival Pier had ever felt or heard on a cover of ’s “The Predator.” Spaulding channeled Jaco Pastorius as her spider-like fingers plucked and slapped through a funky, technical low-end. Questlove met her finger plucks with his fill of down stroked beats, thus creating a musical conversation that made our ears smile. Spaulding demonstrated poise and grace with Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” as a late sunset broke through the gray sky.

Spalding’s set laid nice groundwork for the put-a-hop-in-your-step vibe that Wiz Khalifa and Chevy Woods carried to the stage. Khalifa’s set was impressive and gave the crowd a reason to nod as his two-step beats and smoky vibes delighted the audience. He dipped into the bag of local Philly treats and had Beanie Sigel, Freeway, and the Young Gunz accompany him during his set. Highlights featured “In Tha Cut” with its hop scotch bounce, a cover of Snoop Dogg’s “That Good,” and the crowd favorites “Roll Up” and “Black and Yellow.”

Inside the tent, Man Man’s lead singer Ryan Kattner, aka Honus Honus, just stared at the large screen and mouthed, “It’s The Roots,” as he and the rest of Man Man struggled to get set-up while The Roots already started playing. Man Man had a small crowd watching, but it didn’t matter as they raged a version of "Top Drawer" off of Rabbit Habits. Nas joined The Roots to perform his own songs "Get Down," "It Ain't Hard to Tell" and "The World Is Yours,” before The Roots closed out the Picnic by paying tribute to late poet singer Gil Scott-Heron with Black Thought singing his heart out on the late poet singer’s 1974 funky ode to alcohol abuse, “The Bottle.”

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