Roots Picnic / June 6, 2009 / Philadelphia (Festival Pier at Penn's Landing)

In its second year, the Roots Picnic at Philadelphia’s Festival Pier on Saturday (June 6) offered an atmosphere as informal and relaxing as the word “picnic” suggests. Concertgoers soaked in the gorgeous early-summer day by rolling out blankets, smacking beach balls across the crowd, and grooving to the deep bass ruptures of some premier hip-hop and rock acts, from TV on the Radio and The Black Keys to Public Enemy, Santigold and Asher Roth. The only thing missing from the picnic was a picturesque vision of the Roots’ drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson hovering over a grill, flipping burgers between his band’s multiple sets.

The Roots curated the single-day festival in their native Philadelphia and filled the bill with acts as eclectic as their own brand of hip-hop. Among the early highlights were Los Angeles rapper Busdriver, who showcased body-shaking emotion on the mic and the funky, 13-piece Afrobeat band Antibalas, whose members would demonstrate admirable endurance by joining several other headliners throughout the day.

The crowd grew as Santigold took the stage a little after 5 PM on a mountain of hype and swagger. Santigold’s live set, with its three-piece band and pair of choreographed backup singers, has become increasingly self-assured as her profile has risen over the past two years. In a striking white-and-purple outfit, the Philly-bred singer sunk her teeth into the filthy beats from her debut album and hit her biggest singles “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Creator” out of the park.

Akron, Ohio two-piece band the Black Keys followed Santigold as the token “rock” act of the day, playing blues-influenced tracks that relied heavily on pinpoint guitar work. Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach’s crooning and Patrick Carney’s percussion proved to be fleshed-out and admirable, if a little out of place at the urban-leaning festival.

As the sun dipped below the Philadelphia skyline, legendary New York hip-hop outfit Public Enemy took the stage, backed by the Roots and Antibalas’ five-piece brass section. The set was as astonishing to witness as it had sounded on paper: ?uestlove and company provided the beats while the brilliant Chuck D and brilliantly unhinged Flava Flav barreled through 1988’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” in its entirety, in reverse order. While some of the instrumentation was predictably messy and Flav’s audience-lecturing on race and equality was absurd, it’s almost impossible to do damage to the greatest hip-hop album of all time, and Chuck’s rhyme-slaying on tracks like “Night of the Living Baseheads” and “Bring the Noise” held the set together.

Following the jolt of Public Enemy’s performance alongside the Roots, TV on the Radio arrived onstage with much less fanfare. After set opener “Young Liars” weathered some technical problems, the critically acclaimed art-rockers dug their heels into some of their hardest jams. Crowd favorites “Wolf Like Me” and “Staring At the Sun” were met with rave-like movement from the audience, while tracks from last year’s “Dear Science” played out as well on stage as they did in the studio. TV on the Radio’s fusion of noise-rock and funk likely surprised a lot of people at the Roots Picnic, and the set almost justified its placement above Public Enemy in the lineup.

Of course, the night wasn’t complete without a proper performance by the Roots, who had also played a stinted set earlier in the day. The hip-hop group always foregoes convention at its live shows, and its headlining performance at the Picnic was no different: the band riffed on its 1999 single “You Got Me” for about half an hour, covered Guns ‘N Roses and Led Zeppelin, and capped the set off with its biggest hit, “The Seed (2.0)”. While many adore the free-verse, exploratory nature of the Roots’ live show, it has always struck this writer as a bit aimless, not to mention frustrating for those who would love to see band MC Black Thought let loose and attack the microphone. By the time the performance ended around midnight, however, it was hard not to be captivated by the positive energy of the crowd. On a perfect summer day, the Roots had cobbled together a deeply talented lineup, and one couldn’t help but leave the Festival Pier feeling tired but satisfied.

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