June 2, 2012...
There were occasional clouds, but for the most part the sun was shining and it was a pretty beautiful day for the first day of the fifth annual Roots Picnic. By mid-afternoon Festival Pier, on the mighty Delaware River and looked down upon by the stoic Ben Franklin Bridge, was crowded. It was crowded with an amazingly diverse collection of people- people young and old, people of all races, people who looked like cartoon characters, people in funky outfits, people in sensible outfits, people in let’s go rage outfits- people ready to have some fun.
The Roots, who this year for the first time spread their annual summer festival out over two days, were to finish off the night- joined by Wale and then De La Soul. This would not happen until after 8pm. At a little after four, with the main stage getting ready for Tune-Yards and DJ Stretch Armstrong doing work in the Magic Bubble, a little after 8pm seemed very far away.
Nursing pounders of beer, smoking cigarettes, tweeting on their Twitters, instagraming on their Instagrams, the crowd generally chilled out like anyone would at a picnic. The idea of an energetic hip hop show seemed very distant and far-fetched. In the Magic Bubble, the tent off to the side of the venue, Stretch Armstrong had ‘em going, especially when he dropped in some Bone Thugs ‘n Harmony to his set. He was followed up by Star Slinger, a DJ who looks like the first place winner of the DJ Who Looks the Absolute Least Like a DJ contest. Long hair, a beard, a belly- all I’m saying is that it looks like comic books are part of his life somehow. But regardless, dude can DJ and he had the crowd bouncing.
On the main stage, Tune-Yards’ front woman and tribal leader, Merrill Garbus took the stage- the giant rock show stage now occupied by such a little lady. In front of her was a floor tom, a snare drum and a high hat. You could not see her feet, but that’s where the science of her set happened. Garbus rocks loops in the way that softies wish they could. Everyone responds differently to music as unorthodox as Tune-Yards. My first response was easy- sick grooves. Around me, people had varying reactions. Before Tune-Yards had been a set by rapper OCD. This was quite a bit different. Garbus, immersed within her loops- drum loops and vocal loops, was joined by a bass player and two sax players. You could tell who in the crowd were familiar with Tune-Yards and who weren’t.
“Pretty sick, huh?” The guy next to me said. I responded, saying that it was amazing. Behind me I heard two other people having a similar conversation.
Tune-Yards continued, making indie rock funky. Two years ago, while seeing Vampire Weekend at the Roots Picnic for the first time, I thought they sounded like they were Paul Simon’s nephews. Ms. Garbus sounds like she could be Paul Simon’s oldest daughter. Tune-Yards are just so damn original. They were fun to bob too. Everyone around me started getting into it more. A couple songs in Garbus picked up her ukulele and from behind me I heard, “I was hoping for a ukulele. This is great.”
But apparently people still looked confused.
“Not many of you have seen us before,” Garbus said, a beat dropping behind her as she surveyed the crowd. “Raise your hand if this is the first time you’ve seen us.” A lot of hands went up, causing Garbus and her band to laugh. “I thought so,” she said. “A lot of you had that look on your face- that ‘what’s going on’ look…but in a good way.”
Back in the Magic Bubble there was another DJ set, this time Flosstradamous on the ones and twos, producing the same vibe as before. The Roots were still over two hours away. St. Vincent, a band led by the soft voiced Annie Erin Clark, were up next on the main stage. It didn’t appear to have many folks excited. Everyone was just chill.
During St. Vincent’s set it seemed everyone was in the food line. The poor gal, she tried. But it just wasn’t her crowd. St. Vincent sound like a band of robots. The saving grace for Tune-Yards were the beats- they got people interested. St. Vincent weren’t so lucky, bad luck only compounded when sound problems popped up (foreshadowing.) Clark stood center stage, no music playing and confessed to the audience, “I feel like Rodney Dangerfield, just without the jokes.” I felt bad for her. It was a bummer the food lines were so long, but at least it wasn’t as much of a bummer as standing center stage during sound problems. She handled it well and was relieved when the problems were fixed.
“Thank God that shit is fucking fixed,” she said. Thank God indeed. Now can we do something about the food lines?
Lots of jerseys in the crowd- nearly every basketball player known to mankind was represented. Not only did I see a Sonics’ Ray Allen jersey, but I also saw a Jesus Shuttlesworth jersey. I thought that was weird. Then I saw two different people rocking Barry Bonds’ jerseys. That seemed even weirder. But it was just that kind of day. It was the kind of day to rock a haircut like Kid from Kid ‘n Play or tell us a little bit about yourself based on the kind of socks you are wearing. Token drunk dudes started showing up, a little hitch in their giddy up as they followed their friends around. At just about seven p.m., it was starting to become all about James Murphy, formerly of LCD Soundsystem, and his DJ set in the Magic Bubble. It would get people going, get them excited, get them ready for the Roots. The food lines were still incredibly long- at least pretzels were cheap. Not good, but cheap.
You could tell who the professional was amongst the DJ’s tasked to spin in the Magic Bubble. Murphy’s set simply flowed better than the other DJ’s. It was tighter, had a gloss to it. And yes, his hair looks as crazy in person.
The crowd started getting serious in front of the main stage right around 8pm, as the final touches were made by all the union dudes. Collectively, we would have to ignore the slow jams coming over the PA if we wanted to stay amped and ready for the Legendary Roots Crew. The slow jams continued though. It wasn’t helpful. The whole day up until these few minutes before the Roots had been so mellow. I couldn’t help but think how it’d be different if the Picnic was still only one day long. We would have probably just seen Kid Cudi play and maybe would be waiting for Rakim, who’d be joined by the Roots. The vibe was too much on cruise control. I could see it in people’s faces, even behind their Ray Ban sunglasses- people wanted to get down.
The Roots would no doubt bring the energy, but would the crowd be able to match it?
Questlove and Knuckles were the first ones on the stage; taking their places behind the drum kit and percussion set up. Recently the Roots started playing a go-go version of “Paul Revere” by the Beastie Boys as a tribute to the late MCA. It sounded like it was going to be the opener. Black Thought came out, his white coat looking illuminated. He grabbed the microphone and…
Questlove and Knuckles kept playing. The rest of the band- including a three-piece horn section, came on stage. Black Thought kept on rapping and the crowd heard none of it. No one had a hand in the air with a finger outstretched because they were pointing in the direction where they thought north was. They were trying to get someone’s attention, anyone’s attention. Turn his mic up, people in the crowd yelled. The Roots went into “Proceed” and still no one could hear Black Thought, who was still rapping. It was becoming frustrating. Unbelievable. Was no one aware that this was happening?
Finally a sound tech came from the side of the stage, switched out Black Thought’s microphone and then poof, ladies and gentlemen we have Black Thought. Upon hearing his voice, the crowd cheered wildly. After “Proceed,” Black Thought asked the crowd if it was true, was no one was able to hear him. There was a collective shrug from the Roots and boom, they launched into “Paul Revere” again, as if the first two songs had never happened. It was the coolest thing I saw all day. The Roots played a couple more songs, including “Bustin’ Loose,” a tune by the late Chuck Brown, before they were joined by Wale for “Rising Up.” But big surprise, Wale’s microphone wasn’t working. Bush league.
Wale’s set, eventually improved by the presence of a functioning microphone, was solid, but not something that made me like him more. It seemed to take the energy level back down, which was a shame because in only a handful of songs, the Roots had pumped so much life into the crowd. After Wale’s set, Black Thought announced that they were going to take a few minutes to get the sound right. The mood in the crowd was akin to a rain delay at a baseball game. You could only hope people packed an extra blunt with them.
A few minutes later the Roots re-took the stage for a couple more songs, including a non-Flyers’ centric version of “The Fire,” before introducing De La Soul, who to be completely honest with you- killed it. Man they were fun. Dave, Posdnous and Maseo brought the infectious energy of little kids let loose in the backyard to the stage and the crowd responded. For the first time all day, Festival Pier was full of life- not just people and over-priced beers. Backed by the Roots, De La Soul busted out a slick, tight and spot on career-spanning set. They repeatedly thanked the crowd for being so awesome. It was genuine. There was no fronting or grand-standing.
“We didn’t come here to be cool,” Dave of De La Soul said at one point. “We didn’t come here to be cute. We came here to party.”
And it was a party, complete with a random pop-in, none other than Yasiin Bey (Mos Def,) who rambled out from behind Maseo’s turntables, was given a microphone, and just kind of hung out on stage for the remainder of their set, pitching in when needed. De La Soul never tired. Nineteen songs and their enthusiasm never once wavered. “Potholes in My Lawn,” “Pass the Plugs,” “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays,” “My Myself and I,” they left no stone unturned and gave them crowd everything they could have asked for. How do you follow something like that?
An impromptu set by Bey backed by the Roots couldn’t hurt. Bey rocked a little freestyle, followed by “Umi Says” and “Double Trouble,” before the Roots closed out the set and day one with “The Next Movement.”
With almost a full moon in the sky and the rain apparently saving itself until day two, the first day of the Roots Picnic was an uneven shindig. No one is ever going to question the Roots ability to kick out the jams, but as I talked a cab driver into giving me a short ride back home, I found myself going back to my original question- why two days? I doubted it going in and I doubted it on the way back home. I doubted it waking up Sunday morning and I doubt it writing this now.
Sometimes more isn’t better. Sometimes more is just more. Just because the only beers available are pounders, doesn’t mean you should drink as many as you normally would and just because you think you can stretch out a festival over two days doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
But it’s like De La Soul said, we only came here to party. So we’ll leave the haggling over details to someone else.
See you next year.
Photos by Tim Blackwell