Roots Picnic 2015 was quite possibly the epic-est music festival that Philadelphia’s Festival Pier has seen yet. On top of a once in a lifetime set with sister-in-arms Erykah Badu, (commanding the stage in a futuristic handsfree segway/skatebort-like device she was apparently controlling with her mind!) The Roots were joined by co-headliner The Weeknd for a surprise rendition of “Earned It” as well as surprise cameos from Freeway, YG and The Lox! A$AP Rocky blessed the crowd with his first live performance of material of his new-brand album A.L.L.A. and a stellar bench of DJs (Hudson Mohawke, DJ Mustard, DJ Windows98 AKA Win Butler of Arcade Fire) was lead by none other than the original Master Of Records himself, Afrika Bambaataa. With a third stage added to the Roots Picnic-grounds at Penn’s Landing, there were a lot of good things happening; in terms of pure creative power packed into the bill, we maintain that Roots Picnic is the most concentrated, nutrient-rich music festival on the planet. Let’s take it from the top:
Ever year, Roots Picnic-goers who show at doors open are treated to up-close sets from some of the most exciting progressive new acts out. In past years Shabazz Palaces and Roman Gianarthur–among many others–have blown minds and minted fans with early sets, and 2015 was no exception. This year, Moses Sumney, Marc E. Bassy and Donn T inaugurated the festivities with striking–and strikingly different–sets. Donn T’s band put together an incredibly tight performance that recalled the divas of disco era in spirit and musical chops, while Bassy brought a compelling blend of organic and future-set r&b, running from spacey steppers to kush-kissed ballads. Sumney, however, was the early highlight. Opening with his already-signature song “Man On The Moon” he transformed the closing high note into a worldless opera of droning throat-singing. His set proceeded apace, alternating his indelible and personal pop/folk songwriting with the use of self-sampling and auto-tune to create his own brand of Bon Iver-meets-Bobby-McFerrin experimental choral music–a sound that makes this notoriously shy and self-deprecating young artist one of the most riveting live shows around.
Bishop Nehru perhaps best embodied the intergenerational spirit of the day, remarking: “I grew up on The Roots and Erykah Badu, so shit is kinda real for me right now.” Intense feels did not prevent him from delivering the kind of verbal acrobatics that have made him hip-hop’s current golden child over a bed of Dilla and DOOM beats, even as newcomer Brianna Cash‘s guitar gently wept over on the Oasis stage. Rounding out the spectrum of millenials, Rae Sremmurd took the main stage to remind us how hard the Philly crowd goes for hood-party anthems in between repping the most conscious music of the day, a living embodiment of the phrase “ain’t got no type.” The brothers Sremm gave the crowd a taste of an unreleased new track with Wiz Khalifa just nanoseconds before Hiatus Kaiyote made heads rotate toward the harbor bay with their distinctive flavor of prog-jazz. As if to highlight the equality of eclecticism, every unexpected chord change and virtuoso guitar fingering received an uproarious forward from the same crowd that had been bawling “they knooooow betta” just moments before.
The insistent reggae rhythms of Chronixx & Zincfence Redemption bubbled up and outward from the main stage no sooner than Hiatus’ last vibratto note echoed out over the Delaware river, continuing a seamless run-of-show that remained as tight as well-orchestrated DJ set throughout the festival. Chronixx set was remarked upon as another highlight by many picnic-goers. There’s no drum sound like the gunshot snare of a rockers beat and perhaps sensing that he has almost no serious competition from the current crop of dreads, Chronixx has built his grassroots buzz from original songs like “Here Comes Trouble” into an exhilarating and wide-ranging live set. Playing almost like a greatest hits of the entire genre, Zincfence Redemption put their own stamp on riddims made famous by everybody from Toots & The Maytals to Barrington Levy.
The crowd favorites were just beginning however, as Afrika Bambaataa set off the Oasis tent with a set comprising everything from classic breaks (nobody can spin the “Zulu War Chant” break to quite the same reaction as the founder of the Universal Zulu Nation himself) to DJ Snake. By this point, Roots Picnic star-studded bill began to feel, if possible, a little too good, forcing us to choose between the dance party under the tent and a Harbor stage set from 2015 artist-to-watch Raury. The Southern troubadour was in top form, spitting rhymes and crooning melodies with equal poise under the blazing sun. Raury led his 6-piece band through a setlist filled with social commentary and while the Roots Picnic roster included many a politically-engaged artist, Raury made his message the medium itself. Whether it came courtesy of searing electric guitar solo or a raspy, clattering rap, Raury proved himself a specialist in many styles this weekend…the future is in good hands with him.
The wave of hipsters moving en masse across the festival grounds as Raury closed out a singalong of “God’s Whisper” and Phantogram took the main stage was something to behold and by the time they wrapped their note-perfect set of pop distortions, the 90+ degree weather forced many to seek shade and hydration with a ginger shandy. As if on cue, perhaps the most refreshing and pleasant surprise of Roots Picnic 2015 arrived in the person of DJ Windows98 who augmented a set of Afro-Haitian rara, Fela Kuti and NOLA bounce with effects, samples and two live drummers. By the time A$AP Rocky took the main stage, At Long Last A$AP was not just an album title, it was a mantra. “I just want to let you all know this is the first time I’m performing these songs live…Philly, can I turn up with y’all a lil bit?” was the first of many A$AP ad-libs that re-energized the crowd with the sound of screaming fans, including this aside: “Hey, in spite of all this political bullshit that’s going on, we all one generation in America. Don’t let them make us hate each other.”
A shot of Rocky and the blessed relief of twilight was all that was needed to get the assembled massive ready for what can only be described as the first of multiple co-headliners, namely, The Weeknd. Abel Tesfaye brought an incredible lightshow and Michael Jackson-like stage presence, giving Frank Ocean a run for his money as the only arena-ready performer of the modern r&b sound. What followed, however, was the kind of musical happening that can only take place at Roots Picnic.
Erykah Badu‘s set with The Roots took the song-series they have in, ahem, common…a mashup of “Act Too: Love Of My Life” and “Love Of My Life: Ode To Hip-Hop”–and transformed them into a whole new approach to living musical memory. As each refrain of “feels like we sampled true love” came around, The Roots schooled the audience in HipHop 101, departing on interludes of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5’s “The Message” say, not to mention James Brown and Herbie Hancock. That was only phase one, however. As the nonstop Badu x The Legendary mega-medley continued, each throwback down memory lane brought out a new surprise cameo. First YG…then Freeway…then The Lox came out in turn to “Rock The Mic” and have us swimmin’ in women with they own condominiums (for the record, this line still kills in 2015). Then The Weeknd returned to perform “Earned It” with The Roots.
The crowd lost their minds again and again with each successive showstopper, an ongoing series of what would be concert closers for any other act. Until it was time for the real closer, a certain Grammy-winning duet between Black Thought and Ms. Badu that raised every lighter-app in the house before morphing into a surprise drum & bass remix as Erykah hovered around the stage on the aforementioned, mind-controlled people-moving device. When the light went up, The Roots had wrung every drop out of festival out of Festival Pier. Having travelled from hiphop’s past and then black II the future multiple times in the space of their set, they have set themselves no easy task if they’re going to top this performance in 2016. We’re gonna start resting up now. See you then!