Photos by Seher Sikandar for Okayplayer
Roots Picnic 2014 touched down on a redesigned version of Philadelphia’s Festival Pier Saturday and proceeded to rearrange the capacity crowd’s expectations of what a music festival could be, channeling the star power line-up of a megaconcert (Snoop Dogg x The Roots, Janelle Monáe, Action Bronson, Jhené Aiko, A$AP Ferg + much more) into a family affair. The new look of the pier at Penn’s Landing replaced concrete with sand for a beach party vibe and opened up the river end of the pier so that the stage shows were framed by expansive views of Ben Frankin Bridge at one end and the near-Philly skyline of historic brick warehouses at the other–plus lots and lots of blue sky and white fluffy clouds, as the day turned out to be one of the most beautiful May 31sts on record (nothing quite like seeing Action Bronson’s bulky silhouette framed against the sun-tinged clouds and gently rolling river, arms outstretched like the statue of Christ at Corcovado. The best way I can describe the effect is, picture an award winning BBC nature documentary entitled Flight of The Walruses).
The proceedings began on an auspicious note with fan-creating sets from Electric Wire Hustle and Roman GianArthur. GianArthur in particular made believers out of the early attendees, strutting the stage and making violent love to his guitar on reinterpretations of “Bag Lady” and “Bambi” among other Okayplayer classics–and no matter how deep the improvisation and solos went, his band Roman Heroes stayed locked to the groove tighter than fishpussy.
Though we were already checking for her, Emily Wells proved to be the most pleasant surprise of the day. Her stage show was a stripped down one-woman army approach to 21st century blues, as she sang over beats she stomped out herself with kick and tambourine–imagine Meg White took some notes from Tune-Yards and Feist and decided to make a White Stripes record all by herself and the result might sound something similar. She wowed fans with her own take on Badu x The Roots’ “You Got Me” as she owned the stage in a Tupac “All Eyez On Me” t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. The spirit of Tupac seemed to hovering just off stage left throughout the day, in fact, as Jhené Aiko asked the attentive crowd to bear with her on a cover of “her favorite song” which turned out to be ‘Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” Although she apologized for being hoarse (we imagine she’s pretty busy right now with the live gigs) but Aiko more than made up for it by being way more confident as a rapper than anybody expected and–of course–giving the crowd exactly what it wanted in the form of her current sultry smash “The Worst.”
Biz Markie and Just Blaze kept the vibes alive with epic DJ sets–the latter of which featured Freeway popping up to deliver his verses live on the Just-produced hits “Rock The Mic”; “Flipside” and “What We Do Is Wrong”; because, hey, this is Philly. They could hardly top the energy of A$AP Ferg‘s set however, the tone for which was set with ad-libs like: “we about to turn this shit up to a fucking 10…if you’s a Traplord, put your prayin’ hands up to the sky and we all gon’ catch the Holy Ghost out this bitch.” The highlight of course was “Sha-Shabba Ranks” but the entire set lived up to it’s own hype, prompting Ferg to admiringly offer “Shouts to these crazy white boys in the middle turnin’ it uuuuup.”
Action Bronson turned in what may have been the day’s most memorable set, shouting out Ishkabbible‘s over the beat from Pee Wee Herman’s anthem “Tequila.” It was not just his Philly namecheck game that was tight, however, as Bronsalino ran down his G-rap credentials over backing tracks that ranged from African jazz to ’80s throwbacks like Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and ended up straight singing the chorus of Lisa Lisa‘s freestyle gem “Can You Feel The Beat Within My Heart.” That was before he left the stage to go walkabout for the remainder of his set, stepping down into the crowd to press the flesh before climbing up the scaffolding of the sound tent to knock me aside (true story) on his way to continue rapping from the top of the beer truck. It turned out the beer truck was just part of Bronson’s parkeur pathway to the icee truck where the entire festival watched as he berated the vendor with “Why can’t I have a fuckin icee?”
Bronson set a trend (bad example?) and pretty soon the beer truck was full of turn-up white kids trying to get the best possible vantage point for Janelle Monáe‘s epic set backed by Deep Cotton (the best seat in the house, however, was definitely standing next to Roman Gianaurthur and the Wondaland crew in the sound tent). This performance may be the hardest to capture in words but suffice it to say Miss Monáe might be one of the most dynamic live performers working today, commanding all eyes on her as she covered the Jackson 5, crowdsurfed and sang her petite ass off. By the time she performed “Prime Time” the energy was so high that it was just as well she didn’t bring Miguel out or the world would’ve exploded.
Thus was the stage set for The Roots to take the stage–always a ‘coming home’ moment at Roots Picnic, begging the question: Can any man alive command a roar from a crowd the way Black Thought can just by saying the words “Philly how y’all feeling?” Coming out to the bass barbershop harmony of “The Devil” the band tore through “Black Rock” and a medley of material from their new album …and then you shoot your cousin before hitting off classics like “Proceed”; “Get Busy” and “Clones.” Before the crowd was ready for them to stop, Snoop Dogg joined the fun and Festival Pier did explode when The Roots went immediately into “I Wanna Rock.” A set full of “Next Episode”; “Beautiful” and “Gin & Juice” level joints demonstrated that Snoop may have the deepest catalogue of legitimate hits of any rapper still standing. But then the piano tinkle of “Just A Friend” announced the return of Biz to the stage, soon joined by Rahzel and Doug E. Fresh for a real human orchestra. The night capped off when Snoop joined Doug E. and The Roots for a could only-happen once rendition of “Lodi Dodi.” Though every word rang true as Snoop rapped, the most-shouted line was patently false, as this was most definitely not “the type of shit that happens everydayyyyyy…”
PS(sst) if you were there (or just want to remember the magic) this may be your last chance to grab an official Roots Picnic 2014 t- shirt and/or limited (very, very limited) edition poster. Hit the links below to cop: