Call it Mud in America: J. Cole underwhelms and what else you may have missed from Made in America Day One
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Call it Mud in America.
The first day of the sixth annual Budweiser Made in America festival was a soggy one. Raindrops started falling during the first set of the day — by Philadelphia rock quartet Queen Of Jeans — and kept up through most of the nearly 10-hour, five-stage hip-hop heavy show, which was closed out by North Carolina rapper J. Cole on the fest's Rocky Stage in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps.
It was the first weather-affected Made in America since 2014, when the threat of a lightning storm caused the Ben Franklin Parkway site to be briefly evacuated. Saturday's rain made the grassy areas around Eakins Oval mushy and kept the crowd size down — most tickets are sold as two-day passes, and it stands to reason a lot more people will show up on Sunday when big deal festival curator Jay-Z headlines.
But did the rain ruin Made in America's musical parade on Saturday? It was more like a minor annoyance in a day that delivered plenty of pleasures if you were willing to slog your way from stage to stage to find them.
Let Lizzo, the irrepressible life force born Melissa Jefferson, who performed her joyful hip-hop empowerment anthem in a downpour on the Liberty Stage put it in perspective: "We're experiencing a little rain right now," said the Houston native, who now lives in Minnesota, before her new single "Water Me." "But that's nothing like what they're facing in Houston." She urged festivalgoers — and those watching on Jay-Z's Tidal streaming service — to aid Hurricane Harvey's victims, because "corporation didn't lose everything, corporations aren't hungry. People are hungry."
Other than top headliners like Beyoncé and Rihanna (the latter topped last year's bill with Coldplay), Made in America has often come up short when it comes to booking female acts. Not so on Saturday's lineup, whose standout stars included not only Lizzo, but also Solange, rapper Cardi B, Marisa Dabice of Philly rock band Mannequin Pussy, and the three front women of Queen Of Jeans.
Here are some of the highlights of the opening day:
J. Cole underwhelms
J. Cole — an earnest, talented if rarely thrilling rapper who was easily the most underwhelming Saturday-night headliner in Made In America history — took the stage shortly before 10 p.m., dressed in an orange prison jump suit with an upside down American flag with the word "Property" emblazoned across the back.
Somewhat ominously, the gruff-voiced rapper opened with "For Whom The Bell Tolls," from his 2016 album 4 Your Eyez Only, and shortly after he enunciated the lyric "I see the rain pouring down," the skies opened again.
The North Carolina rapper previously played Made in America in 2014 shortly after he reshaped his image with "Be Free" a song in response to the shooting death of a Ferguson, Mo., teenager that summer. His music has largely followed a similarly serious direction on two chart-topping albums since, but his set on Saturday was meandering and with little of the wildcat energy that came through in many of the performances from earlier in the day.
Solange welcomes the dusk with a mellow set
Solange Knowles waited for nightfall to begin her penultimate set on the Rocky Stage, and that made a lot of aesthetic sense.
Beyoncé's little sister is a stylized performer who — just as she did at the Roots Picnic earlier this outdoor concert season — played a highly choreographed show with the stage bathed in red light, with a single spotlight never settling on her or any of her dressed-in-,white dancers (or dancing musicians). The red, white, and yellow lights dangling from the trees around Eakins Oval that are so good at blocking views of the stage also added to Solange's artisanal soul spell.
Solange has carved out a role for herself as the bohemian Knowles sister for years, but she really stepped up as an artist not to be ignored with last year's A Seat At The Table, a proud, angry consideration of Southern-ness, racism, and the self that was highlighted by the diaphanous "Cranes In The Sky" and dramatic "Don't Touch My Hair," both of which were standouts of her mostly mellow set Saturday night. The former Houstonian didn't mention Hurricane Harvey, but was characteristically political: "Neo-Nazis … anti-gay, anti-lesbian, anti-Muslim folks, a Confederate statue everywhere, and a [weak man] at every corner, but we're not allowed to get mad," she said after singing "Mad."
Vic Mensa loses power
The Chicago singer Vic Mensa lost power multiple times during his Liberty Stage set. He was forced off the stage as techs scrambled to fix the problem. The crowd chanted "We want Vic" in support. His set was killer aside from the technical problems. He finally got back on after a short delay, but the crowd wasn't happy with his truncated set and continued their chants after he finished.
Moshing with Migos
Atlanta rappers Migos — with Sixers center Joel Embiid in the crowd — came out playing hits from the start, including "Hannah Montana" and "Slippery," noting beforehand, "The stage is wet but we don't give a f— because we gonna make it wet." The set was an energetic one from the trio, who immediately demanded that the audience organize into two "circles" or mosh pits and refused to continue playing if people didn't listen. People eventually did it, but it was short-lived. They saved "Bad and Boujee," their massive hit featuring up-and-coming Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert, but, alas, he didn't show.
Hip hop’s rising diva: Cardi B
The crowd was hype for Cardi B before she even showed up on stage.
She graced the Liberty Stage in a bedazzled and fringed barely-there dress that draped all her curves — and complained about the cold. But the weather didn't stop from her from passionately rapping songs from her mix tapes Gangsta Bitch Vol.1 & Vol. 2 for her decidedly short set. But the air was thick with anticipation for her hit song, the one climbing the charts and pushing her to the top of the rap game: "Bodak Yellow." Once the beat started, the crowd exploded and rapped the lyrics along with the reality star/Instagram queen/rising hip-hop personality, leaving those who braved the rain for Cardi B breathless.
Highlights from Philly bands
The festival got under way on the local-heavy Skate Stage at 1:15 p.m. sharp on Saturday afternoon with Queen Of Jeans, the quartet fronted by Nina Scotto, Miriam Devora, and Mathewson Glass. The band's mix of low rumbling rhythm with surf-rock and girl-group overtones eased the crowd into a party groove. At one point, it seemed that a bunch of dudes were climbing up to stage five during the rousing "Dance (Get Off Your Ass)," but they were in fact skateboarders whose vert ramp was literally attached to the stage. The band closed out the show with a cover: Not their recently recorded version of the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian," but a winning guitar freakout take on Aaliyah's 1998 R&B hit "Are You That Somebody?" Cool choice. By the time the last note was played, the rain had begun to fall.
Mannequin Pussy's Marisa Dabice opened her band's set with an expression of wonderment at the Skate Stage: "We're Mannequin Pussy and we're at Made in America." That's really all the lead singer of the thrashy Philadelphia quartet needed to say. One of the little-appreciated facets of Made in America in the last few years are the scrappy, mostly local acts booked by the Philadelphia office of Live Nation (rather than handed down from above by Jay-Z's Roc Nation) that wind up on the Skate Stage during the day, rocking out to a small but fervent group of followers covered in tattoos or wearing Velvet Underground jean jackets. Next gig in town will likely be at an all ages venue like Everybody Hits or the First Unitarian Church — where Mannequin Pussy are playing on Oct. 19 — but for one rainy afternoon, they got to have their hellaciously rocked-out moment at Made in America.
Philly-bred, now Brooklyn based duo Marian Hill played the Rocky Stage, a higher profile stage than their Philly brethren. Programmer Jeremy Lloyd expressed his pleasure to be home, and rather than save the familiar for a show closer, he and his partner Samantha Gongol (augmented live with keyboardist and saxophonist Steve Davit, a Drexel University music industry major) opened with "Down," the irresistibly catchy track from their 2016 Act One that jumpstarted their career when it was used in an Apple ad earlier this year. Once they had the crowd's attention, they didn't lose it, with their sparse, grabby, and slow-grinding songs going to work on the crowd who were forced to include ponchos as part of their patriotic fashion statements.
In the later afternoon, there was something subtle going on on the Skate Stage. That was Alex Giannascoli, the Havertown native songwriting wunderkind who goes by the stage sobriquet (Sandy) Alex G. Is it possible to make peaceful, sweet exploratory music at Made in America? Indeed it is, if you're off on a side stage on a drizzly day playing before a receptive audience not much bigger than would fit into a packed coffeehouse. Giannascoli's new album, Rocket, deals in the homemade snazzy songcraft and melodic grace that has led to so many Elliot Smith comparisons. But in addition to bristling bursts of dissonant noise, it also includes country and western tinged laments and jazz improvisational turns.