The Roots spend more time in the 212 than the 215 these days, but the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon house band still belongs to Philadelphia in the summer time.
On Friday, the hip-hop plus collective led by rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson showed up at Fifth and South for the dedication of a Philadelphia Mural Arts Program mural depicting their progress over two decades. Next month, the band will host its annual Philly 4th of July Jam on Ben Franklin Parkway, playing to the masses in support of John Mayer, Ne-Yo and Jill Scott, among others.
And on Saturday at the Festival Pier along the Delaware River, the group hosted their sixth Roots Picnic, the annual event which serves as both an unofficial kickoff to the outdoor summer music season in Philadelphia and allows the band to act as tastemakers, programming its own festival to reflect its take on the state of contemporary pop, hip-hop and indie-rock.
This year, the 17 act show started at noon with singer-songwriter Jennah Bell and finished 11 hours later at the close of The Roots’ own dazzlingly musical two hour set, performed in tandem with old school rap heroes Naughty by Nature, plus unbilled guests Meek Mill, Marsha Ambrosius and Rahzel the Godfather of Noize.
The 6700 capacity venue was sold out, a testimony to the strength of the fest’s brand, which has established that even on a punishing 90 degree day when it was even warmer in the packed-to-the-gills air conditioned DJ tent than outside on the shadeless blacktop, the Roots Picnic is still the coolest place to be in Philadelphia on a Saturday in June.
Ample credit for the Picnic’s popularity this year also goes to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the Seattle hip-pop duo who have struck zeitgeist gold with “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love,” their hit singles which support clothes shopping on a budget and same sex marriage, respectively.
In their late afternoon set, the red headed rapper and DJ duo owned the crowd, surfing the crowd, vogueing with shaven headed back up singer Wanz and bringing broad smiles to the faces of the diverse crowd, which included lots of kids with parents in tow for whom Macklemore was the top priority.
There were more highlights, including Canadian one woman band Grimes, who pushed buttons and twiddled knobs while manipulating her own vocals on catchy indie-electro dance songs. In the tent, Brooklyn teenage rapper Joey Bada$$ lived up to his name with a tight set of neo old school rap, and DJ Premier moved the crowd with actual old school rap.
Like The Roots themselves, the Picnic is hip-hop at its core, but embraces a wide range of styles. That was apparent in the presence of Beyonce's indie-hipster sister Solange and jazz experimentalist Robert Glasper, and, as the sun was mercifully setting, Gary Clark Jr., who in one interlude made his blues guitar echo the record-scratching sounds of DJ Premier moments before.
It had already been a long day by the time Clark departed, but there was no rest for the weary. “Philly, Philly! Stand up!,” Black Thought commanded as the sonically omnivorous octet leapt into a trademark medley that included “Table Of Contents, Part 1,” and “The Next Movement” without the perennially underrated rapper stopping to breathe for 20 minutes or so.
With deep grooves cushioned by James Poyser and Kamal Grey’s keyboards snapped to life by the kick of Questlove’s snare drum, The Roots are a perpetual motion machine that seamlessly shift in whatever musical direction they may choose. That could be their own jazz-soul compositions like “Mellow My Man” and “Dynamite,” an extended arm-waving passage with Naughty by Nature serving up crowd pleasers “O.P.P.“ and “Hip Hop Hooray,“ or a scat singing star turn by guitarist Kirk Douglas on “My Favorite Things.”
It’s nice to be able to watch The Roots in their role as America’s band on TV every night - and it might be even nicer in an earlier time slot when they become The Tonight Show band next year. But it’s even more of a privilege to hear them stretch out back in their hometown, showing the full range of what they can do. “Roots crew from Philly, how you lovin’ that?” Black Thought queried at one juncture, asking a question he already knew the answer to. “Alright,“ he replied. “We lovin’ you right back.“