At age 12, the Roots Picnic had a growth spurt.
The Philadelphia hip-hop band made it an even dozen years for the festival known as the Roots Picnic, which had previously taken place on the Delaware riverfront at the now-defunct Festival Pier.
But this year, the Picnic left home and moved out to more spacious digs in Fairmount Park.
Basing the event at the Mann Center also put the sprawling surrounding site to creative use. The band used a celebration of the 20th anniversary of its pivotal album Things Fall Apart as the climactic performance of a 10-hour show that drew 25,000 fans -- 10,000 more than they had ever previously pulled in. Despite a fight that broke out that caused a brief panic in the crowd early in the evening, the move to a new venue was a clear success.
Roots leaders Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson had made appearances on various stages during the day, but the Roots as an entire, dazzlingly versatile musical ensemble didn’t show up as a whole until darkness fell on what was dubbed the Fairmount Park Stage.
Before they launched into Things, they got an assist from Ursula Rucker, the Philadelphia poet who was featured on all early Roots records.
Following Rucker’s spoken intro, Trotter led the spry, fiercely precise band at full strength, swinging into “The Next Movement,” lighting a fire under the crowd on ”Dynamite!” and welcoming the semiregular Roots rapper and secret weapon Dice Raw as a guest on "Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New.”
The band played Things Fall Apart roughly in order, but with fresh interludes inserted, using the album as more of a framing device than a sacred text to be dutifully duplicated.
Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def who performed at Black Thought & J. Period Mixtape earlier in the day, showed up to throw down with Black Thought on “Double Trouble,” then stuck around to cast a jazzy, mesmerizing spell on his own “Umi Sez.”
Common came out for his cameo in camouflage shorts for his “Act Too (The Love of My Life).” Then after a loose jam session in which Black Thought followed his muse to riff on Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, and the Wu-Tang Clan, Common came back and overstayed his welcome, doing songs from his Roots-influenced album Like Water for Chocolate, as well as new material from a forthcoming album, for which he was joined by Philly soul man Bilal -- who had a much more powerful moment earlier in the day.
More effectively to the point was the guest spot by Beanie Sigel, who joined Black Thought and frequent Roots collaborator Dice Raw on a blood-quickening “Adrenaline.” Sigel then brought out Freeway, his former protege who has recently had a kidney transplant and was awarded a mini Liberty Bell earlier in the evening in honor of Saturday being declared Philadelphia Freeway Day by the city. And the parade of Philly talent continued with the surprise appearance of the Philly duo Young Gunz, who skipped across the stage spitting their 2003 hit “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.” Jill Scott came out for “You Got Me.”
During one midshow break, Black Thought stopped to address the head-bobbing crowd in the West Philly night: “This is exactly the way we always envisioned it,” said the rapper, dressed in a long black robe emblazoned with the words Til Zen on the back. “We out here in peace, respecting each other.”
And this Roots Picnic did indeed bring the band’s vision to life, as a showcase for the breadth and range of the band’s influence, both in Philly and far beyond. It was a homecoming for the Tonight Show band that showed how far their music has traveled, and how rooted they remain in Philadelphia.
A true Roots Picnic moment
Earlier in the day, Raphael Saadiq turned in a tour de force performance under the Mann roof. The set by the dapper former Tony! Toni! Toné! singer was billed as Raphael Saadiq vs. the Soulquarians, the name Questlove used for the group of A-list musicians when he recorded with D’Angelo in the 1990s. On Saturday, as the hot summer day cooled and a breeze blew through the Mann, the band included bassist Pino Palladino, Questlove (who welcomed the crowd to “my hometown of West Philadelphia”), and Roots keys player James Poyser (sousaphone player Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson also joined in).
Singing in a supple near-falsetto, Saadiq led the band through old-school-style R&B jams that soothed and swayed and hit all the right grace notes in bringing to life the comforting soul grooves that are the foundation for so much of the contemporary hip-hop heard around the fest grounds throughout the day. As swooning as the crowd was throughout the set, it grew still more ecstatic when Saadiq handed the mic off to the playfully sensual Philly soul vocalist Bilal, who was greeted as if he were a superstar. A true Roots Picnic moment.
While Saadiq was finishing up at the Mann stage, the rapper 21 Savage, who was in the news earlier this year when the British-born artist was detained by ICE, was bringing his performance to a close on the Fairmount Park Stage.
After he finished, a fight broke out in front of the stage, which caused a panic and sent fans fleeing in all directions.
“It was five to seven young men rumbling, throwing punches,” said Jamaal Smith, who witnessed the skirmish while working as security for concert promoter Live Nation at the stage.
Despite rumors of a shot being fired and a stage collapsing that spread quickly on Twitter, Smith said, “there was no gun involved. We wouldn’t still be here if there was a stage collapsed. The Philadelphia police would have shut the event down -- and they were here.”
According to police, there were five people with injuries -- four with minor injuries and one concertgoer with a broken leg. A Live Nation spokesperson said, “A fan had an unfortunate medical issue that caused a portion of the crowd to disperse. Music resumed and fans enjoyed the rest of the Roots Picnic.”
The show goes on
The show went on with Gabi Nelson, the 21-year-old rising star who performs as H.E.R., following 21 Savage with a set of warm, genre-splicing silky soul tinged with rock that made it clear why she’s quickly become a Grammy darling and an attraction big enough to rank second on the Picnic bill. To signal where her inspiration comes from, she finished her set with an act of bold showmanship: picking up her guitar and playing her version of Prince’s guitar solo coda to “Purple Rain.”
Too much of a good thing
More than in previous years, the Roots Picnic has crossed the threshold to become the kind of festival where it’s impossible to catch all the good stuff. Too much ground to cover, too many acts playing at the same time on different stages.
Better to drift and try to catch a spot in the shade among the tertiary attractions. In one spot on the grounds, artist Gabe Tiberino enlisted the help of volunteers in creating a mural centered on the subject of Queen Latifah’s hit “Ladies First.” Ms. Pac-Man and Skee Ball old-school boardwalk games were free for all in an arcade space. Up on top of the hill, Picnic-goers in search of a chill experience listened in on the Questlove Supreme Podcast featuring rapper-author-Microsoft salesman Common while waiting in line for water ice.
Action heated up under the Mann Center roof, however, for the Black Thought & J. Period Mixtape. An annual feature of the fest, it brings the Roots rapper and a DJ together with guest emcees, getting down to the raw essentials of hip-hop.
This year’s announced guest was Yasiin Bey, who took turns trading verses with Black Thought, topping each other time and again, with Bey’s nimble flow contrasting with BT’s hard-hitting attack. The back-and-forth got more intense — and the whiff of weed more pungent — after the pair first brought out rapper Mamada Youssef (in part to counteract the set’s “male energy,” according to Black Thought) and then really drove the hard-core crowd into delirium with the entrance of “Oh No” Brooklyn rapper Pharoahe Monce.
New Orleans funk-rap-bounce-spoken-word band Tank & the Bangas brought the Mann Stage to life with a delightfully sunny performance dipped day-glo psychedelia. Irrepressible frontwoman Tarrionna “Tank” Ball led an 11-person band, significantly expanded since the Crescent City outfit leaped to fame by winning the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert in 2017.
As much as the Roots themselves — or the impressive array of talent they assembled — the star of Saturday’s show was the Picnic’s new site.
After 11 years on a “slab of asphalt,” as Black Thought described the no longer operational Festival Pier, the 2019 Picnic made the move to Fairmount Park in a way that utilizes the greenery and spaciousness of the Mann site that would be unfamiliar to regular patrons of the pop and classical venue.
The main performance space — which kicked off at 1 p.m. with the soothing sounds of Paterson, N.J., neo-soul singer Asiahn — was not in the traditional Mann band shell, but a “Fairmount Park Stage” situated on the grass area between the Mann building and Parkside Avenue that’s usually used for parking. The seated amphitheater was then used as a second stage, which early on hosted &More, the Philly duo of rapper Chill Moody and singer Donn T, who happens to be Questlove’s sister, and the 60-woman strong Resistance Revival Chorus. And the third stage, farther up the hill, which is normally known as the Skyline Stage, was repurposed for podcasts and DJs.
The creatively expanded site gave the Picnic plenty of room to breathe. The Picnic sold out to its 25,000 capacity on Saturday morning — 10,000 more than it ever drew to Festival Pier. But since the site was configured to hold as many as 35,000, the space didn’t feel the slightest bit squeezed.
The new locale seemed to draw bigger numbers from the Mann’s surrounding neighborhoods.
And while Saturday afternoon traffic and road closures made getting to the Picnic no picnic, the inviting site caused one to wonder what other Philly-area festivals might look like if they were transported to the urban yet bucolic setting. Like maybe the XPonential Festival, or Made in America?