Roots Picnic Wrap-up
Entering its second year, the Picnic returned with another eclectic mix of artists spread across two stages and representing just about every genre under the sun. What didn't return this year, and thankfully so, was the extreme heat. Even surrounded by thousands of people, it never got nearly as hot as last year, leaving the massive crowd with just the music to focus on.
Roots Picnic Wrap-up
James A. Johnson
The first Roots Picnic in 2008 was one of those epic and memorable concerts that people will be telling their friends about for years to come. With an incredibly diverse lineup, equally exciting performances and heat that had to be experienced to be believed, the show was absolutely unforgettable. Entering its second year, the Picnic returned with another eclectic mix of artists spread across two stages and representing just about every genre under the sun. What didn't return this year, and thankfully so, was the extreme heat. Even surrounded by thousands of people, it never got nearly as hot as last year, leaving the massive crowd with just the music to focus on.
Writtenhouse kicked off the show early, taking the second stage at 12:00 p.m. The three man group, consisting of Charlie K on the mic, Chris Conway on the MPC and Kush Shalimar on keyboard, were in top form, and certainly showed why they earned a spot in the lineup. DJs King Britt and Dozia of the Back 2 Basics crew took the second stage after Writtenhouse, treating the crowd to a nice mix of mellow hip hop while Amanda Diva played host for the tent.
The first set from The Roots started promptly at 2:00 p.m. with the band running through a series of songs in quick succession. The Roots are veteran live performers, and seeing their stage show is like watching a well oiled machine. Each performance of theirs is so flawless, the only thing you can compare it to is their previous shows, and even then it isn't easy. About the only complaint for the group's opening set was the brevity, which made sense given that there were another 11 acts still slated to perform at that point.
After The Roots rocked out for a half an hour or so, ?uetslove directed the audience back to the tent, where Francis and the Lights had started up their set already while DJ Cash Money spun for those who chose to stay outside. Those who made the journey to the tent walked in to an excellent show, as the group's lead vocalist, Francis Farewell Starlite, showed ridiculous amounts of energy and some great dance moves reminiscent of Napolean Dynamite. Attention then shifted back to the main stage, where Elevator Fight was getting ready to rock the crowd. The band features vocalist Zoe Kravitz, and despite having only existed for a few months, they put on a decent show. The highlight was easily their song “Broken Glass”, an infectiously catchy tune produced by the group's bassist, Khari Mateen. While their stage show now is sold, these guys are going to be realty great after a little more time playing together.
Back in the tent, Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew were giving the second stage audience another excellent performance. The group, hailing from Sierra Leone, wowed the crowd with great afrobeat sound coupled with creativity not often seen in live music. One introduction for a song about soldiers had the group acting out a scenario in which they were captured at gunpoint and forced to prove they were musicians. Between this, Writtenhouse and Francis and The Lights, the second stage artists were really proving they weren't secondary at all. California native Bus Driver was up next on the main stage, and his performance took place at the same time as Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew were rocking the crowd in the tent. While none of the day's sets were bad per se, in comparison to the others Bus Driver's left a little to be desired.
The Brooklyn based afrobeat band Antibalas was up next. Their incredible horn section, which would be used frequently throughout the day, coupled with lead singer Amayo's colorful face paint and high energy made their set a real treat. Santigold followed on the main stage and gave one of the shows best performances. The Philadelphia native and current Brooklynite was backed by a three piece band and had dancers on either side of her, all dressed in gold and black outfits, who jammed in time to her bass heavy songs.
The Black Keys went up next on the main stage and rocked. Loudly. Kid Cudi had the unfortunate luck of going on at the same time as this Akron, O.H. based duo and from all accounts, was completely drowned out by their levels, which eventually blew out guitarist Dan Auerbach's amp. The group has seen many comparisons to The White Stripes, and judging by this performance, those aren't entirely unwarranted (albeit Patrick Carney is a bit better than Meg White on drums). The two's show played well to the large contingent of the crowd that came to see them perform, and made new fans of those who hadn't.
I think it's fair to say that Public Enemy's set was the indisputable highlight of the show. Backed by The Roots and that wonderful Antibalas horn section, Chuck D and Flavor Flav performed the entirety of their classic album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, along with a couple of their other hits. Chuck D has been called one of the greatest emcees to ever pick up a mic, and despite being close to 50, showed energy that a lot of rhymers 40 years his junior wish they had. Flavor Flav reminded the crowd why he's the most well known hype man in the world as his antics kept the crowd entertained while he and Black Thought helped Chuck with the lyrics. It really can't be overstated how good this performance was, and hip hop heads in attendance will be talking about it for years to come.
Brooklyn was definitely in the house throughout The Roots Picnic, and indie rockers TV on the Radio followed fellow BK residents Antibalas and Santigold, although they had the unfortunate luck of trying to follow Public Enemy. With help from the Antibalas' horn section, the music sounded fantistic. Unfortunatley vocalist Tunde Adebimpe's mic was turned down way to low, making it hard to hear him unless you were really close to the stage.
The Roots wisely closed out the show this year after terribly outshining Gnarls Barkley at last year's Picnic, but even they had a hard time comparing to the epic that was Public Enemy's set. Still, the Legendary is good enough that they can't really be upstaged by anyone, and despite their finale not lasting as long as many fans would have liked, it was an excellent performance featuring extended versions of The Seed 2.0 and You Got Me, with Amanda Diva and "Captain" Kirk Douglas filling in for Badu.
Overall, the show was wonderful. Just about every act rose to the occasion and put on a stellar performance, and Public Enemy's set alone was worth the price of admission and then some. Conventional wisdom suggests you can't have too much of a good thing, but that was probably the biggest shortcoming of the event. At points audience members had to select between the main stage and the tent, and once you were in either, the crowd made it hard to get to the other quickly. Having to choose between Kid Cudi or The Black Keys or Asher Roth and TV On The Radio was a bit unfortunate, but when the worst thing you can say about a show is that there were too many great acts, you know you've found something good. Another truly impressive aspect of the show was how many of the artists themselves watched and enjoyed the performances of their peers. Even those not directly involved with the show such as local rapper Beanie Sigel were in attendance, and viewed from the sides of the stage. There are very few events like this in the country, let alone this area, and Philadelphia is very fortunate to have something like the Roots Picnic. Hopefully the show continues to grown and improve with each year.