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Review: The Fugees reunited with Lauryn Hill at the Roots Picnic

Lil Uzi Vert, Questlove and the Isley Brothers also joined Lauryn Hill at the Roots Picnic.

Ms. Lauryn Hill performs during the Roots Picnic at the Mann Center in Fairmount Park on Saturday.
Ms. Lauryn Hill performs during the Roots Picnic at the Mann Center in Fairmount Park on Saturday.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

On Saturday afternoon during a live version of his Questlove Supreme podcast at the Mann Center, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson hinted that something special was coming late that evening at the Roots Picnic.

“This will be the Roots Picnic to beat,” the drummer said, speaking of the festival founded in 2007 that has expanded to three days this year, with Usher scheduled to headline Sunday night.

“I have nothing to do with it, but I got a phone call, and I got a proposition about something, and it’s happening. So … you don’t want to look on your Instagram and realize you missed a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Sure enough, the momentous event came to pass: Fugees reunited at the end of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s closing set, with Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel of the huge-in-the-’90s hip-hop trio joining her after she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

“We’re out here doing 25 years of Miseducation,” Hill said of the Grammy-winning album released on Conshohocken’s Ruffhouse Records label in 1998. “But there’s another 25 years we didn’t do a couple of years ago because of COVID.”

Hill was referring to the quarter century anniversary of The Score, the 1996 Fugees release (also on Ruffhouse) that’s among the biggest-selling albums of all time. Due to the pandemic, a planned 2021 reunion amounted to only one show.

Any hopes of further Fugees performances seemed remote after Michel was found guilty in federal court in April of 10 criminal counts related to a failed conspiracy to help a Malaysian businessman and the Chinese government influence U.S. officials.

Yet there was Pras — who faces up to 20 years in prison but has yet to be sentenced — bounding on stage along with Wyclef.

They joined Hill for six songs that sent a rush of electricity through the crowd at the end of a 9½-hour day that included performances by Soulquarians & The Isley Brothers, Syd, Lil Uzi Vert, Philly jazz-gospel bandleader Adam Blackstone, reunited Philly rap crew State Property, and Washington go-go groups Rare Essence and Backyard Band.

Hill’s big band — 18 members by my count — backed her on often-rearranged, at times overly busy Miseducation songs, performed in scrambled sequence, with tracks like “Every Ghetto, Every City” and “I Used To Love Him” left off the list.

It brought to mind a Bob Dylan performance, where the great artist changed things up and did things his own way, rather than give the people what they wanted — or thought they wanted.

But by bringing Fugees back together, Hill gave the Picnic crowd what they didn’t dare dream could happen. (Especially since most everybody thought Michel was already in prison.)

The six songs the reunited trio did were delivered in joyous, straightforward fashion, with a snippet of “The Score,” followed by “How Many Mics,” “Zealots” and “Ready or Not,” the latter built around Philly soul group the Delfonics’ 1968 hit “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love).”

The spacious arrangement of that song gave Hill room to shine, and her soulful contralto sounded better still on “Killing Me Softly,” the hip-hop adapted version of the Roberta Flack hit.

The group then took it out with “Fu-Gee-La,” with Hill shouting out Ruffhouse founders Chris Schwartz and Joe Nicolo as well as his brother Phil Nicolo, another of her many Philly music associates. Of The Roots, she said, “We were like classmates, we started at the same time. This is a class reunion.”

This year’s Roots Picnic drew “20,000 plus” on Saturday, according to police and fire officials, with no troublesome incidents reported. The grown-up, mostly Black audience was entertained on three stages.

» READ MORE: Black Thought talks about the biggest-ever Roots Picnic: ‘It’s the Philadelphia Black music experience’

The open-air Park Stage hosted the biggest acts, like Hill and Lil Uzi, the massively popular, winningly off-kilter Philly rapper whose brief, bass-heavy, casually charismatic performance confirmed that they are indeed a “Rockstar.”

The Presser Stage is the Picnic’s name for the TD Pavilion, the seated amphitheater which becomes a secondary stage for the weekend.

There, Los Angeles R&B vocalist Syd sang disconsolate love songs from her 2022 Broken Hearts Club. And the competition between D.C.’s Backyard Band and Rare Essence was ridiculously funky. Roots rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter — who was to perform Sunday with Eve and Busta Rhymes — joined Rare Essence.

The Picnic’s Podcast Stage has been relocated to lower, easier-to-reach ground, after it was high up the hill on the Skyline Stage in 2022.

Now it’s nearby the Game Theory tent — named after a 2006 Roots album — with a spades tournament and other amusements, as well as a Dunkin pop-up. Yes, Philadelphia, it is possible to have coffee at a music festival. Made in America, please take note.

During his podcast, Questlove talked about how Diddy, originally scheduled to headline the fest before canceling and being replaced by Usher, had hoped to make his festival entrance lowered from a helicopter. Maybe next year.

The drummer also talked about how his band’s show on Friday night with Dave Chappelle had fulfilled a lifelong ambition to play the Spectrum in South Philly. The Spectrum building was razed in 2009, but as true Philadelphians, he said he and Trotter still call the Wells Fargo Center by the old arena’s name.

His goal for the Picnic, Questlove said, is for it to rise to the level of a world-class event with the Roots shaping it, but not necessarily performing as a group.

Saturday’s best example of that was the Soulquarians and Isley Brothers set. He played drums, joined by his Roots bandmates James Poyser, Kirk Douglas, and Mark Kelley, supported Ron Isley, 82, and his guitarist brother Ernie Isley, 71, plus four backup singers.

The elder Isley, in a splendiferous gold-flowered suit that matched his microphone and the handle of his cane, still has a falsetto full of feeling.

The set was lovingly conceived and executed. The 1977 hit “Footsteps in the Dark” dug into the slow jam later sampled by Ice Cube on his 1993 “It Was a Good Day.” Singer Kandy Isley did her take on Ice Cube’s rap.

And no Questlove-curated Isleys performance in Fairmount Park would be complete without the band’s 1974 cover of “Hello, It’s Me,” by Upper Darby’s Todd Rundgren. The delicate Isley-Soulquarians version was tender and sublime, a regular once-in-a-lifetime Roots Picnic special.

The Roots Picnic continues at the Mann Center, 5201 Parkside Ave., on Sunday. More info on