When you think of picnics, you typically don’t think of cheesesteaks and asphalt; although the term does typically bring to mind summer, and with summer comes the music festival. Last Saturday, the Roots hosted the 4th annual Roots Picnic at the Festival Pier in Philadelphia, featuring a slew of artists spanning all kinds of genres. The Roots Picnic has established itself as the summer kick-off in Philadelphia for the past three years, arriving the first weekend in June and featuring artists such as Public Enemy, the Black Keys, Santigold, Jay Electronica, and of course the Roots, in years past.
This years incarnation was just as diverse, featuring the Little Dragon, Dismemberment Plan, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Mac Miller, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Esperanza Spalding, Wiz Khalifa, and Nas, with the Roots backing both Spalding and Nas in addition to playing their own closing set.
Two stages were located on the pier for this event; one inside of a large tent dubbed the Vitamin Water Uncapped Stage which featured more of the electronica and DJ based acts, and an enormous outdoor stage sponsored by Miller Lite which featured all of the main acts. The intent of the dual stages was to avoid overlapping sets, but this notion was quickly disrupted by equipment problems and stalled stage times. The sound inside of the tent was pretty muffled, and most of the acts that performed on this stage were generally lackluster and underwhelming.
But for most, it was the acts on the main stage that drew them to the Festival Pier. This stage was located right by the entrance and basically faced out onto an audience area that was the size of a football field and surrounded by concessions on all sides. The reception to many of the earlier acts to grace the main stage, such as the newly-reunited Dismemberment Plan and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti was casual at best; crowds did not grow thick until later in the evening, allowing people to sit around and take in the picnic. It was very easy to make your way to the front of the stage for these acts, which allowed people who may have come out for these bands a good chance to see them up close.
The crowd swelled a bit more when it was time for Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes to take the stage. The Zeroes, who were a late addition to this festival, were festival darlings in 2010 and had built a lot of momentum throughout the year, spearheaded by their hit-single “Home.” There was a definite excitement from those who were familiar with this band and a sense of curiosity from those who weren’t. Sound problems affected the beginning of this set, but lead singer Alex Ebert attempted to deflect these problems by engaging with the crowd and coming into the audience several times. Their set came to a close with “Home,” during which the barefooted Ebert was presented with a bright orange pair of vintage Nikes, which seemed fitting for the cross-pollination of genres present at the picnic.
Esperanza Spalding was the next to grace the main stage. There has been much buzz about her since she beat out Justin Bieber and Drake for the Grammy for Best New Artist (take that Canada!) and her performance certainly showed why she received such a great honor. She switched between upright and electric bass during her set and was aided by drummer ?uestlove and guitarist Kirk Douglas from the Roots. After performing a few jazzy numbers from her own catalog, the funk was turned up with some covers of the Weather Report and Michael Jackson which had the crowd begging for more.
As the sun was beginning to set, Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa took the stage. Not one to alienate the Philly crowd, local rappers Beanie Sigel and Young Gunz also came out during this set. Wiz delivered a very energetic set, bouncing around the stage and dancing to impress the ladies the entire time. Hazy clouds were a constant fixture above the audience, which seemed to be encouraged from the artist as he delivered several crowd favorites such as “Roll Up” and “Black and Yellow.”
With the sun fully down came the main act of the festival: a 90-minute set from the Roots. These hometown favorites have had quite the year; in addition to having their most recent album How I Got Over nominated for multiple Grammys, they also won a few for their collaborative work with John Legend, Wake Up!. Even with all of their time in the studio, they have been able to split duty serving as the house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” as well as play several notable shows and festivals.
The Roots quickly got the crowd moving with hits such as “The Fire” and “How I Got Over” as well as a funky cover of Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” At that point, Nas came out for a medley of songs, transitioned almost seamlessly, with the Roots as the backing band. It was very impressive seeing the Roots ability to transition between genres and styles throughout the day, and seeing them take bring some of Nas’ biggest hits to life such as “The World is Yours” and “One Mic,” was a truly memorable experience. The prolific rapper exited the stage after nine of his tracks, and the Roots got back to business with “The Next Movement” and “The Seed (2.0)” before paying tribute to the late Gil Scott-Heron by covering “The Bottle.” The evening was closed with a cover of Kool G Rap’s “Men At Work;” a fitting track for one of the hardest working bands in music today to leave the Philly crowd with.
Despite some of the difficulties with sound from earlier in the day, the Roots Picnic was still a pleasure to attend and a great way to kick off the summer. At $65 a ticket (before charges) it also happened to be a bargain to see this many great acts in one bill. There was something for everyone at this picnic and should be for years to come.
Words and photos by Jesse Zryb