Day 1 Roots Picnic NY photographs taken by Vickey Ford (SneakShot) for Okayplayer.
If you’re at Roots Picnic it must be a blazing hot summer day in Philadelphia. Right? In fact, this is only one statement of previously unassailable logic which no longer holds true in 2016. But realizing that you are a) losing your mind to amazing music in the front row at Roots Picnic and b) it’s a mild but overcast fall afternoon in the heart of New York City is the best kind of bizarro world logic. The renowned Philly institution descended on the Big Apple with two stages and all systems go as New Yorkers of all denominations came together at Bryant Park to catch a festival-full of musical goodness–D’Angelo, John Mayer, The Jungle Brothers, Lady Leshurr, Emily Wells and Chargaux just to name a few, plus comedy from Chappelle Show co-creator Neal Brennan–all packed into The Roots’ legendary picnic basket.
The picnic vibes were established early with upcoming acts who are already stars to Okayplayer readers; Chill Moody channelled the spirit of Philly as no-one else can, Emily Wells reaffirmed her status as a one-woman/seven-nation musical army and OKP First Look artist Chargaux set all the right tones with their string duet, summoning the music of the spheres with compositions like “Trife Life.”
Native Tongues veterans The Jungle Brothers kicked the cool afternoon up a few notches closer to tropical with classics from several eras, ranging from “I’ll House You” to “How You Want It?” Birmingham, UK-based mic controlla Lady Leshurr was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the day, at least for the majority of the crowd that was just hearing her for the first time. She leavened her set of UK trap hits (“Brush Your Teeth”; “Crispy Bacon”) with plenty of dancehall and NY hip-hop that the crowd could get with (even rocking a red and black lumberjack with the hat to match in tribute to Biggie) as well as chatting breeze entertainingly between riddims (“This next song is about dry lips…”). Likewise Kevin Gates –dressed PLO-style in white surplice and red & white checked keffiyeh, anchored his thumping set with memorable stage presence (“I heard a girl say, That’s Kevin Gates, he doesn’t give a fuck about what he say. That’s not true, I do give a fuck about what I say. I just don’t give a fuck about what you think about what I say.”)
In the midst of it all, Neal Brennan was introduced by what was unmistakably the disembodied voice of Dave Chappelle. It felt like an aural hallucination–unless you had already happened to see the elusive comic genius hanging out and chain-smoking in your section of the park. With that auspicious start, Brennan won the crowd over with a tightly focused set of his funniest material, memorably comparing a vote for Trump to putting a grill cheese sandwich in your VCR to see what would happen.
The next indication that Chappelle would be playing informal MC/guiding spirit for the night (more on that below) was his intro for DJ Questlove. Questo spun a virtuoso set that felt like a record-based version of The Roots’ infamous jamwiches, stitching together bars of dancehall, jazz, no-wave and disco into a sort of genre-less haiku of dancefloor tropes. Probably not every listener could follow the chain of lyrical segues and associations that gave the set its thread–Questo introduced himself with a double layer of mo’ meta DJing, cutting up DJ Showbiz cutting up Chuck D’s voice on the hook from Show & AG’s “Party Groove” into a fitting invitation to “Hear the drummer get wick-wick-wick-wicked”–but they could surely get on board with the progression of other party grooves as he moved from deep cuts like Belle Epoque’s “Miss Broadway” to Robin Scott’s “Pop Muzik” to De La Soul’s “Saturday.”
That was only the most erudite of several brilliant DJ sets that followed. Bobbito Garcia brought deep cuts, AfroBrasil edition, while Stretch Armstrong spun a set of ‘90s hip-hop that also served to subtly remind the crowd that as a duo Stretch & Bobbito not only broke Day 2 headliners Wu Tang Clan on New York radio, but also Nas, Mobb Deep and the not-yet-Notorious Biggie Smalls, among many others. For his Everyday People set, DJ mOMA flowed from Drake to Arrested Development to Ashford & Simpson to Ghosttown DJs like he was inside your stream of consciousness.
Although the Everyday People set was one of the day’s highlights, it was soon affected by the distinctly New York phenomenon called pre-walking, as those who had come to see D’Angelo and John Mayer began jockeying for position close to the stage long before star-time. After a brief period of crowd warm up with the sounds of J Dilla, The Roots came in with a double-dawg dedication to both Dilla Dawg and the dearly departed Phife Dawg. Black Thought, in full Isaac Hayes/Frank Lucas mode with his zebra coat and wide brimmed hat, took the time to add a dedication to everyone “who raised a fist…or took a knee against injustice.”
It felt like The Roots sticking to their usual brilliance until “Act Too: Love Of My Life” was punctuated by Common rushing the stage to deliver his verse, then proceeding through a set of his own that culminated with a fist-in-the-air a cappella rendition of his newest “Black America Again.” The poetic bars drew audible punch-to-the-gut exhalations from the crowd repeatedly with the impact of each truth-projectile. The Okayplayer/Soulquarian collective have always inspired and influenced each other so its no surprise that some of their greatest work has come in waves. Consider the 2000-era string of Things Fall Apart, Voodoo, Black On Both Sides and Mama’s Gun. If the urgency and brilliance of Com’s performance last night can be taken as any indication, Black America Again will be to Black Messiah what Like Water For Chocolate was to the albums mentioned above.
Next came the set so many had been waiting for as John Mayer, guitar slayer demonstrated his mastery of crowd and instrument with a set that included extended jam outs on “Gravity”–his solo here was worth price of admission alone, even for Mayer skeptics–and a dubbed out version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Flanked on either side by Captain Kirk Douglas and bassgod Pino Palladino, the musical firepower assembled onstage was truly humbling and Kirk weighed in with guitar and talkbox solos of his own that were triple-decker musical jamwiches, subtly referencing everything from Sade to Missy Elliot.
Here Chappelle took center stage. Although he had vowed earlier that “I’m not telling one joke. Sorry, motherfuckers…” he proceeded to be hilarious anyway, explaining “If I’m out here two things must be true: Kevin Hart wasn’t available and D’Angelo is late.” He proceeded by saying “it’s good to be back, you don’t know how I feel, watching Key & Peele do my show for the last 5 years.” He ended his brief session, however, back in no-joke mode: “There’s no punchline. Black Lives Do Matter.”
Which brings us to D’Angelo. Suffice to say, D did it again last night. He had the crowd holding out until the last possible moment, as the cool afternoon turned into a bone-chilling fall evening…only to deliver an out-the-car-door-straight-to-the-pulpit service of a lifetime, with some of the finest musicians on the planet holding it all down in the choir. Mayer stayed on stage, joining Pino and Kirk for a rhythm section that was equal parts bedrock and music nerd fantasy; a foundation of slinky guitar riffs and low-end science for a funk and gospel revue of the most cosmic order. P-Funk horns, stuffs and thangs, all accounted for, and proudly. Building slowly and confidently into more uptempo crowd pleasers, D’Angelo played the crowd like a Rhodes. Mayer showed admirable restraint and what resulted was marked less by cathartic solos as multi-layered improvisations as three or four zen masters danced around each other in noodly polyrhythm. They didn’t need to actually play a Prince tune for you to know His Royal Badassness was watching over last night’s service. The whole damn park was lit lavenders and blues; the after-glow of The Purple Planet.
The Roots and crew made Saturday into Sunday and built a church last night of unapologetic blackness and wounded, yet resilient, beauty. The spirit was caught. Now we look forward to Wu-Tang Clan to make Sunday afternoon into Saturday night on Day 2.