Words, Images & Videos by: Jake Krolick
10th Annual Roots Picnic :: 06.03.17 :: Festival Pier :: Philadelphia, PA
View Jake’s gallery after his review.
If you want to see a slice of life that emulates the best of humanity come to the Roots Picnic. This Philadelphia mainstay has evolved into a world class event a decade after its conception. Much has happened in the past 10 years, from the festival creators The Roots moving on to a huge role at the Tonight Show, to deaths of influential musicians like first year picnic alum Sharon Jones, this ever changing landscape of music at this yearly offering has been a blast to navigate. We’ve witnessed hip-hop legends grace the stages like Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, NAS, De La Soul, Naughty by Nature, Snoop Dogg and DMX. We’ve seen rock from the likes of The Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr, and witnessed stars rise and fall. After all this time the world keeps spinning and The Roots have been curating its soundtrack the whole time.
Year after year I walk away from this festival believing in the best of people and music. The crowd once again was respectful, kind, caring and ready to show their fashion and love for each artist and person around them. Numbers soared well past 10,000 and the crowd spread over three stages with the mainstage moving north under the dreamy shade of a massive tent. The sand, the food, the bathrooms, the tents, they all added up to make Festival Pier more than bearable, but an actually enjoyable place to spend a Saturday.
While folks were dusting off their schoolyard double Dutch skills in front of the Planned Parenthood tent, No Name’s song “Diddy Bop” helped keep time. The 25-year-old out of Chicago flowed through a mix of lethargic rap covering tracks off her 2016 album Telefone. The 10th Annual Picnic gifted us daydream weather after years of sweltering heat.
Sitting on the banks of Delaware River was a grand place to take in the vibe of the early afternoon hush as Michael Kiwanuka came on at the North Stage. Beginning his set with the long slow burning guitar of “Cold Little Heart,” Kiwanuka wrapped listeners into a soulful little afternoon pocket that was warmly received. He channeled his inner Richie Havens as he clapped into “I’m A Black Man in a White World.” Kiwanuka sent chills through the crowd as he let his voice pause and quaver during a performance of the Love & Hate title track.
Local Philadelphian Rakim “PNB Rock” Allen combined R&B and hip-hop in an ultra-melodic lyrical exchange. His lanky strut and obvious excitement pumped up the South Stage crowd and generated the most enthusiastic response of the afternoon, as many sang along to the hook of “There She Go.” The Germantown neighborhood product was well connected and to his fans’ delight he could later be found guesting on the Oasis Stage with Brooklyn artist A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie.
With the energy levels up, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and J Period’s Mixtape set on the North Stage played like hip-hop’s version of a Grateful Dead show. The songs were numerous and the transitions were seamlessly flowing orchestrations by J. Period who righteously worked the turntables while former The Roots member Scott Storch made the keyboards sing. Black Thought helped fill in the lyrical holes between the invited special guests Mobb Deep and Fat Joe, who made the crowd freak when he performed his hit “All the Way Up” in a bold summer sweater. Back on the South Stage dressed in all black and white, 21 Savage pushed out a heated trap set whose bass levels punched at onlookers’ guts.
Other than an odd time slot and flow issue, the neon pink haired Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) was a force to be reckoned with as he coaxed the afternoon along showing his prowess on the six-string bass. Known to collaborate with a wide spectrum of artists including Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar and most recently Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, Thundercat played an ethereal set on the North Stage. The chemistry between keyboard player Dennis Hamm, drummer Justin Brown and Bruner was palpable as the three exchanged a volley of keys, drums and bass dripping with phasing effects galore. Their exchanges kept things interesting as the three-piece jazz fusion trio uncorked bits and pieces the recently issued album Drunk.
Any time drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson recommends someone personally you should take notice. His recommendation, Kimbra, the Kiwi performer was dressed to the nines in Joseph’s Technicolor dream coat on the South Stage. She gave a lively indie-pop performance that had feelings of Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs meets Sylvan Esso. Back on the North Stage the Atlanta rapper once known as Lil Jeezy and now just Jeezy tossed the crowd rhymes and flung nuggets like, “Anyone here went to a black college? Then you’ve been fucking with the Snowman since Day One.”
Solange was back bathed in red-light on the South Stage. She dazzled the Roots Picnic once before with a 2013 afternoon performance that led to this a massive show stopping headline spot. Her set began anchored by a New Orleans sound from backing brass horns and supporting vocalists/dancers that imitated her every move. She locked into her audience and played the first three songs off of A Seat At The Table to the adoration of the Philadelphia crowd. Surrounded by a chiefly female crowd, I watched them take in the performance in awe. They gushed for Solange, roaring “This shit is for us” during “F.U.B.U.” It created an incredibly moving moment during a time when strong female voices are needed most.
The headline set of the festival was Pharrell Williams with The Roots. Introduced by J.B. Smoove with a nod to Curb Your Enthusiasm (he leaked it would return in October), they created that kind of feel-good magic you won’t soon forget. The next almost-two-hour set turned into a guest-star filled collective that ascended the ranks of picnic greatness with help from Williams’ flair for songwriting and The Roots’ unassailable musicianship. Backed by his own back-up dancers and the most versatile band in the world, Pharrell ran through Daft Punk’s “Lose Yourself To Dance” before tackling Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Black Thought helped Pharrell reimagine it by adding new rapped verses before Questlove helped segue seamlessly into The Roots own rearranged version of “The Seed 2.0” with some masterful drum fills. The special guests poured onto the stage starting with Pusha T offering “Grindin”, Tyler, The Creator dancing on a goofy version of N.E.R.D’s “Lap Dance” and ‘90s R&B trio SWV offering “Right Here.” Pharrell closed the show with a massive version of “Happy” during which he introduced one last special guest, a 6-year-old who has been battling cancer for five years.
After 10 years the Roots picnic has maintained its ability to unite people with music and culture because, in the end, Pharrell’s song is what it’s all about: making people happy.