The kickoff to summer music season every year here in Philly comes by way of the Roots Picnic. Now in its 9th year, the Picnic once again proved why it has earned itself that distinction. Through a carefully curated lineup that always features an array of talent both new and old, The Roots brought another year of excellent music to Festival Pier for their only gig in Philly this summer.
One of the biggest changes for the festival this year was a much needed improvement to the layout/stage setup. In their second year utilizing three stages, the festival organizers decided to move the third stage (The North Stage) further away from the rest of the festival grounds (nearly a full city block), creating a huge area for attendees to get food, drink, or relax in the shade under what they called the “Chill Tent.” Each year it seems that organizers take note of what changes attendees are requesting and actually follow through, something that is sorely missing at other big festivals in the area.
One of the biggest highlights of the sunny Saturday on the waterfront came early in the afternoon during one of the festival’s first acts of the day. At just 15 years old, Willow Smith commanded the stage like an old pro, despite attesting to the fact that she had been extremely nervous. After strutting through a series of newer tracks, the young singer introduced her second to last song as “an oldie but a goodie.” The crowd erupted in cheers, knowing she was about to sing her first, and biggest hit, “Whip My Hair,” a song she had previously stated she no longer performed. But it was her final song, which she dubbed “another oldie but goodie,” that truly brought the excitement. In one of the most talked about events of the day, her father, Will Smith, joined young Willow on stage along with DJ Jazzy Jeff to perform their classic hit “Summertime.” Is there a more perfect way to kick off a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Philly? Probably not.
It was a family affair of a different variety over on the South Stage in the day’s next set, as sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz (better known as Ibeyi) led the crowd in songs from their 2015 release, including “Ghosts,” “Mama Says,” and “River.” By the end of their set, a rowdy group of fans eagerly awaiting the arrival of Philadelphia rapper Lil Dicky began chanting his name. His Oasis Stage performance drew a packed crowd of people who knew every line of his many clever songs. From “Professional Rapper” to fan-favorite “$ave Dat Money,” Lil Dicky certainly made the most of his hometown advantage.
By 3pm, the crowd had grown heavy in anticipation of Anderson.Paak, arguably one of the most buzzed about acts on the festival circuit this year. He did not disappoint, putting on one of the best sets of the day with his high energy performance and a charismatic smile that seems permanently glued to his face. “If nobody love you, I love you. Alright?,” he told the crowd, and coming from .Paak it seems totally genuine.
He was followed by the “Classic Man,” Jidenna, on the North Stage and R&B songstress Kehlani, on the South Stage. The later of whom wrapped up her set with her hit single, “Did I?” Both acts were decent, but couldn’t quite stack up against the powerhouse performance of Anderson.Paak.
By the time Swizz Beatz took over the North Stage just before 5pm, the audience was ready to be hyped back up again. The mega-producer managed to squeeze in a ton of hits in his too short set. Boasting “550 songs in the catalog,” he probably could have gone on all day, playing hit after hit. He opted to take full control of the stage himself, saying, “I don’t need 100 people on the stage with me to turn up.” True to his word, the New York native brought one of the most energetic sets of the day before rushing over to the South Stage to join friend and frequent collaborator DMX.
DMX, the dog, the legend, was an act that many weren’t sure would actually make it to the Picnic this year, especially following a health scare that left him hospitalized back in February. Even Roots front-man Black Thought was rooting for the Ruff Ryder. Telling mxdwn, “I want to see DMX do a stellar performance, I’m really rooting for him to come back and for us to play a role in his return to greatness.” On Saturday, DMX proved that you don’t really need to teach an old dog new tricks. Both he and Swizz promised a new DMX album was coming soon (possibly by the end of the year). According to Swizz Beatz, the album is finished and ready and, after his performance this weekend at The Roots Picnic, it will definitely be well received.
What followed were a pair of more mellow sets, with Blood Orange on the North Stage and Leon Bridges on the South Stage. Bridges brought his usual vintage charm, performing songs like “Coming Home” and “Better Man.” It’s easy to see why this young Texas native has drawn comparisons to the likes of Sam Cooke. His songs are mostly true stories, drawing inspiration from his family. “Twistin & Groovin” tells the story of how his grandparents met and “Lisa Sawyer” (who was in the audience on Saturday) is about his mother.
Despite all of the day’s highlights, there was one clear disappointment. At 8pm, reigning trap-rap star Future was set to take over the North Stage. That he did, for about 20 minutes. Set to perform for an hour, Future only managed about a third of that due to sound issues, according to his management. After leaving the stage abruptly, Future returned again. But this time he didn’t even get through the entire song before leaving the stage again, never to return. Frustrated fans gave up on him quickly, abandoning hope altogether, preferring instead to camp out and wait for Usher to take the stage at 9pm.
Over on the Oasis Stage, those wise folks who opted to miss Future’s set entirely were treated to a fantastic dance party from Kaytranada, who has made his way onto almost all of the best albums of 2016 lists. Blink and you may have missed one of the best parts of his set, the random clips of Martin playing below him.
The moment everyone was waiting for arrived just before 9pm, perhaps to make up for the early end to Future’s set. First, The Roots deservedly took their place on the main stage, performing a jam session for nearly 15 minutes. When Usher took the stage, backed by the hardest working band in the biz, they together managed to meld hits from both of their deeply vast catalogs. He took the fans through sing-a-longs of “Caught Up,” “U Remind Me,” “Burn,” and “U Got It Bad.” In typical Roots form, the songs took on new form, but the arrangements felt meticulously crafted. He would eventually take the lead on The Roots’ Jill Scott-fronted track, “You Got Me.” After a brief respite, The Roots returned for an encore, followed by Usher to perform “Yeah!” with special guest Lil Jon, who confessed this was the best Usher show he had ever seen. “You need to take this show on the road!,” he told Usher and Black Thought, perhaps foreshadowing the announcement that they would indeed be taking the Picnic on the road this fall (sans Usher).
Throughout the day there was one clear theme: Love. For a city often referred to as The City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia has also grown a reputation more recently for being an angry lot (just having been named the “Angriest City in America”). That just wasn’t the case on Saturday. Nearly every performer looked out in the crowd and spoke of the love. From early on in Willow Smith’s set when she confessed that it was the love she saw in everyone’s heart that kept her from feeling nervous, to the last set of the evening when Usher urged attendees to “love those you have while you still can.” Even DMX spoke of the love in his life, exclaiming there’s “no greater blessing than being loved.” Many also showed love for the late, great Muhammad Ali. The legend earned shout-outs from Anderson.Paak, to Swizz Beatz, to Usher (who donned an Ali T-Shirt for much of his set).
Photos by Jackie VanZelst