The lineup has been announced for the Roots Picnic, the 12th annual music festival that stars and is programmed by the hip-hop band that serves as nightly national brand ambassadors for Philadelphia on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
The band led by drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter will celebrate their 20th anniversary of Things Fall Apart, the 1999 album that came at a crucial juncture in their career.
But the important news about the Roots Picnic, happening on June 1 this year, doesn’t have to do with the who or the what. It’s the where and the why.
After 11 years on the Delaware Avenue waterfront, the Roots Picnic will, for the first time, be held at a place where you might actually want to have a picnic: the “greener pastures,” as Questlove put it on Instagram, of the Mann Center in Fairmount Park.
And the reason the picnic will no longer be staged in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge is that, this summer, no concerts of any kind will be happening at Festival Pier.
“Festival Pier is on sabbatical,” says Geoff Gordon, the local chief of dominant concert promoter Live Nation, which has booked the outdoor Penn’s Landing stage for more than a decade while also putting on shows at many other venues throughout the region.
Calling it a sabbatical is slightly misleading. The site that has hosted the picnic as well as two years of Hall and Oates’ Hoagie Nation festival and scores of acts such as Arcade Fire, 311, Gorillaz, the Replacements, Diplo, Neko Case, Coheed & Cambria, and many more, is kaput.
Last year, my colleague Inga Saffron reported that Live Nation was aiming to build an open-air arena farther north along the waterfront in Fishtown, but no plans were definite, and the fate of Festival Pier still hung in the balance. But now we know the venue is no more.
Real estate development is the culprit, “a confluence of growth and and change in the city, and timing,” as Gordon puts it, “didn’t line up to pull off a season this year.”
The non-musical plan for the site is for a mixture of rental, retail, and “generous public space oriented around the extension of the Spring Garden Street corridor,” according to the website of Philadelphia urban design firm Olin.
Having a new outdoor venue ready for the start of the 2019 summer season would have filled the gap of Festival Pier, which had a capacity of 6,000 for most shows and closer to 10,000 for festivals like the picnic and Hoagie Nation, for which the no-frills site expanded on the blacktop farther north.
Gordon says the possibility of a Fishtown venue is still on the table, but other outdoor options are also being considered. “We will definitely have another place to present the shows we’ve always presented at that level in 2020,” he promises.
But what happens in the meantime? Where do the 20 or so shows go that used to be staged under the stars at Festival Pier?
“Philadelphia will not lose any shows,” Gordon says. (OK, maybe at least one: Hoagie Nation will take off this Memorial Day weekend — when baby boomers have other options with Billy Joel and The Who playing Citizens Bank Park — and will return next year.)
Is Festival Pier a great loss, especially coming the same week as the news of Chinatown’s storied Trocadero Theatre going out of business? Not really. It was never an ideal venue and could be particularly miserable when overcrowded on brutally hot summer days.
It still had its upside: easy access by foot or public transportation from Center City, and on starry nights with the Ben Franklin Bridge looming overhead and the right band playing, it could be magical.
But its loss also presents an opportunity. The pier was always essentially a parking lot on the waterfront, jerry-rigged into a concert venue. Its demise presents Live Nation with the opportunity to purpose-build a proper downtown outdoor venue for summers to come, taking sight lines and hopefully a roof into consideration to avoid thunderstorm cancellations like the one that hit the Roots Picnic last summer.
This year, the acts that would have played along the waterfront will be shuffled to various other sites. Exhibit A is the picnic, an event that will potentially be vastly improved with the addition of greenery and shade, and the room for a few thousand more hip-hop fans for an event that will take place on three stages.
Gordon says that “growing the Roots Picnic was always the intention" of Questlove, Black Thought, and Shawn Gee, the band’s manager and the head of Live Nation Urban, the company’s division in charge of developing festivals focusing on hip-hop and R&B. The challenge of putting the event in the park will be getting fans to it who are accustomed to taking public transportation or walking, rather than driving.
The timing of losing the pier as a venue is softened for Live Nation because it just opened a buzzed-about capacious new room that many acts are hankering to play. “It’s serendipitous,” says Gordon. “It wasn’t a bad year for this to happen, because probably five of those acts would have wanted to play the Met anyway.”
In 2016, Jason Isbell played Festival Pier with Chris Stapleton. This year, the Nashville songwriter will play the 3,400-capacity Met with a different beardo: Father John Misty.
And Kacey Musgraves, winner of the album of the year Grammy and who sold out the Fillmore in January, would have been a good fit for a late-summer outdoor show along the river. Instead, she’s playing Sept. 11 at the North Broad Street opera house. By then, the Grand Salle, the luxe 400-capacity lounge capable of hosting DJs or intimate shows, will be open. It wasn’t ready for the grand opening with Bob Dylan in December, but it will be for Mariah Carey on April 3.
Live Nation will still put on some shows along the river at the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing, where Trombone Shorty played last year; a 2019 series has not yet been announced. And some shows will be moving across the Delaware. Prog rockers Coheed and Cambria were stalwarts at the pier. They’ll be playing June 22 at the BB&T Pavilion with Mastodon and Every Time I Die.
And speaking of that Camden venue, which is not a favorite showplace of anyone I know, it seems it deserves some props. The frequently renamed building is celebrating its 25th anniversary and was named the second-busiest amphitheater in the world last year by industry-monitoring magazine Pollstar.
This year, the venue with a jam-band-heavy summer lineup, including Dave Matthews, Dead & Co., and three nights of Phish will feature multimillion dollar improvements, including new LED screens on the lawn and foodie options such as tough-guy actor Danny Trejo’s Trejo’s Tacos and Art Bird Chicken, owned by Lady Gaga’s father.
Another place for Festival Pier bands to go: The Warped Tour in Atlantic City. What, you say? You thought last year was the farewell for the punk rock summer camp that was retiring from the road after a tour that included a stop in Camden in July?