As music festivals go, the Roots Picnic is very much its own beast. With none of the ditzy-hippie desert accessories—dream catchers, feathers, beaded headbands—of Coachella, the corporate-sponsored social media machine of SXSW, the daunting primal landscapes of Sasquatch or the disco lollipops and synthesizers of Ultra, what it resembles more than anything is a good old-fashioned block party with some superfine music. Philly pride blooms all over this small patch of concrete by the water.
Day One begins at noon, with big confusion. Because: where the hell is this thing? Under the Penn’s Landing sign on the waterfront, there are no signs of life, no stream of kids, no throbbing bass, none of the usual signifiers. We latch on to some girls who seem to know what they’re doing and make a pilgrimage down Christopher Columbus Boulevard toward a vague promised land in the distance. Scalpers start hitting us up. An Obama volunteer hands out posters. The bass kicks in. Yes, we’re headed in the right direction.
On the Main Stage, emcee Amanda Seales announces Grand Prize Winners from Last Year, confusing the hell out of everyone unfamiliar with the young Atlanta-based hip-hop/guitar experiment. “Don’t be alarmed if we look strange,” says the lead guy. “That’s because we are.” One of them is wearing a Roman battle helmet, because that’s where he’s coming from.
Backstage, little kids are playing basketball. Bigger kids are drinking beer and playing cornhole (the tailgating game, ahem). Hugs and peals of laughter all around; everyone here seems to know each other. A stranger bums a cigarette—he grew up in the same neighborhood as Black Thought, they’re old family friends. He’s a professional poker player now. No, he explains, not all of them wear sunglasses at the table like Scotty Nguyen.
The line for Gigi and Big R’s Caribbean soul food truck gets even longer. Annie Clark from St. Vincent eats an apple instead.
Time to go! Over in the tent, there are ripples of excitement over Shabazz Palaces. These Seattle dudes cast a limbic spell, spinning a fine mystical gauze over the crowd with “Youlogy” off their first record. They deploy some lo-fi choreography, a combination of sign language, spin moves and hand slaps. They are post-cool, entirely of their own untouchable universe.
On a different tip entirely is Mr. MFN eXquire. It’s hot today, but he’s dressed for winter on the Mongolian steppe: camo hunting jacket, fur hat with earflaps, sunglasses, piles of beads. It’s joyful chaos when he steps offstage for a field trip into the crowd—we can’t make out what his exact words, but the man loves his expletives—his crew crashing into each other like asteroids.
Over in the tent, we cannot get over James Murphy’s head of hair—so lush and shiny!—as he lays out a disco-heavy set for the LCD-mad kids in the tent.
Off-kilter fashion plate Danny Brown steps up to the Main Stage wearing black leather cargo pants and a black T-shirt with metallic bib. He slams through “Radio Song” and “Wit It,” and a few more then sidles away.
Night falls, and our gracious hosts the Roots come out to monster crowd love. Questlove, Black Thought and Co. pay sweet homage to MCA with a cover of “Paul Revere.” Soon Wale comes out and gets into a go-go-style call and response with the crowd about butt love, which prompts Black Thought to come out and apparently whisper a little intervention in his ear. This here’s a family party! Then the sound cuts out during his set. Later on Twitter we’ll read about a supposed backstage confrontation between Wale and hostess Amanda Seales, something about a Twitter beef. Maybe this just wasn’t his night.
Black Thought introduces De La Soul by saying the Roots wouldn’t exist without them. Together, they run through a ton of cuts from Three Feet High and Rising and beyond, an entire stageful of middle-age hip-hop veterans looking and sounding as spry and nimble as ever. Surprise guest Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def comes out too.