The Roots Picnic made a triumphant return on Saturday, with the Philadelphia hip-hop band drawing its biggest crowd ever as it came back to the Mann Center after a two-year absence for the first of back-to-back daylong celebrations of Black music and culture in Fairmount Park.
“Philadelphia, stand up!” Roots rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter commanded the crowd of 30,000, announcing that he and the 10-piece band anchored by drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson were about to be joined by Mary J. Blige as the co-headliner for the final set of a day that began 10 hours earlier.
Under bright-blue skies, the picnic played out as a musical endurance test, with Philadelphia R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan, jazz pianist Robert Glasper with Philly vocalist Bilal, and Camden gospel bandleader Tye Tribbett all turning in standout performances, all live-streamed live on YouTube.
And also Black Thought, a second time: He mainly served as a foil to Blige during her star turn, dropping verses on “What’s the 411?” and “Reminisce” while the singer put a hurtin’ on deeply felt songs of vulnerability and heartache that the crowd sang along to.
But the Roots rapper also displayed his verbal and rhythmic mastery earlier during a Black Thought Live Mixtape segment that was the pure hip-hop highlight of the day, featuring rat-a-tat musical repartee with rappers Rick Ross and Benny the Butcher, plus surprise guest Pharoahe Monch.
That stellar showcase was sandwiched between sets by Sullivan, and Glasper with Bilal, that were displays of vocal mastery.
Bilal (last name: Oliver) was gloriously supple in his scat singing excursions over pianist Glasper’s jazzy explorations, with Roots keyboard player James Poyser sitting in. Sullivan concentrated on the sexually frank songs from her 2021 Heaux Tales, and the Strawberry Mansion-raised singer’s voice swooped and soared in moments of high drama and subtle tenderness.
Sullivan was one of several performers to remark with pride and pleasure at being a guest of the Roots and at the sight of the largely Black audience. “I see a lot of beautiful Black faces out there,” she said. “A lot of beautiful brown skin.” Benny the Butcher said: “I come from the east side of Buffalo. Believe me, it don’t look like this up there.”
Longtime visitors to the Mann might wonder how 30,000 people — a number expected to be matched on Sunday when Summer Walker, Wizkid, Kamasi Washington, Tierra Whack and DJ Jazzy Jeff and Rakim are among the performers — could possibly fit into a venue whose TD Pavilion holds less than half that number.
By expanding the venue so it’s tripled in size, that’s how. The normal Mann campus is 22 acres, including the high-on-a-hill Skyline Stage, which was used Saturday for selfie-posing next to a Roots Picnic sign with Center City in the background, as well as for podcasts curated by Philly hip-hop personalities Wallo267 and Gillie Da King.
For the picnic, the Mann imprint is more than 65 acres, moving east into Fairmount Park, where Philly singer Aquil Dawud was the first act at 1 p.m. on the main stage, which stands in an open field that was packed by the time evening arrived.
The new configuration turns the TD Pavilion into a second stage, significantly shorter on must-see acts, though there were some choice attractions scheduled for Sunday, including maximalist jazz sax player Washington, rapper Freddie Gibbs and New Orleans band Tank & the Bangas.
The Pavilion was nonetheless an attractive place to be on Saturday, in part because it offered two amenities otherwise in short supply: shade and seats.
It was there that Tribbett played with his 16-piece, high-energy ensemble. The Grammy-winning bandleader is a good example of what Roots manager Shawn Gee says is the festival’s intention to demonstrate that “Black culture is not a monolith. It’s a mosaic.”
Along with Kirk Franklin, who was scheduled for Sunday, there is more praise music at this year’s Roots Picnic than ever before, and the crowd responded in boisterous fashion to Tribbett’s message. He didn’t mention gun violence specifically, but spoke of “a lot of craziness going on.”
“God can do what we can’t do, but we’ve got to do what we can do,” he preached, and raised the roof with a gospel adaptation of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
The picnic’s growth into a major festival that branches out naturally from the Roots’ innate musicality and wide range was apparent throughout, with a spades tournament and short films from the upcoming Blackstar Film Festival.
Maybe the picnic’s most winning, practical touch was a truck that sold fully charged, portable phone chargers for $35.
Lines were long getting into the festival grounds in the afternoon, but the process of first checking for prohibited items — no chairs or backpacks allowed, unless they’re clear bags — and then moving through metal detectors was smooth and efficient.
Along with the picnic’s growth came growing pains. As the day wore on, it became apparent that sets weren’t starting at either the times listed on the Roots Picnic Instagram or the festival app.
Time gaps between sets were long, and the site was too crowded to move around much, so the best strategy was to stick to one place and listen to DJ Diamond Kuts, the Philly-based cohost of the relaunched Yo! MTV Raps, who kept the crowd happy spinning lots of Beyoncé and Biggie. Yo, give that woman a bonus!
The crowd was more than primed for the arrival of the headliners by the time the Roots arrived at 11 p.m., fronted by Black Thought in a white suit with matching platform sneakers.
The band was on fire from the get-go, mixing originals with a snippet of Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” but played for only 12 minutes before bringing out Blige.
“The Queen diva,” as Black Thought called her, was in fine, forthright form, and she has an extraordinary bond with her audience, 30 years after her debut.
“Tonight’s going to be a history lesson,” she said, expressing gratitude to be playing with “one of the greatest bands in the world, in our culture.” The benefits of the collaboration were many, from the scratchy rhythms that enlivened “Reminisce” to Tuba Gooding Jr.’s pumping sousaphone pushing “Real Love” forward.
Blige made her exit after an upbeat take on her 2007 single “Just Fine.” After that the Roots stuck around for just one more song, the foot-to-the-floor sprint of “Web,” from the 2004 album The Tipping Point.
It was a dazzler, but concluded the first day of the festival with the band it’s named for having played without Blige for only 20 minutes. That made it clear that there’s at least one thing that the expanded Roots Picnic could use more of: the Roots.