Sunday, June 8, 2008

Today's the Day the Roots Crew Has Their Picnic

My freezer is currently stocked with Flav-Or-Ice. A couple of hours ago I saw a firefly. And right now I'm trying to ignore the sunburn I got yesterday after spending 9 hours in 90-plus degree heat while listening to music. I'd say that it's officially summer, wouldn't you? Here's my report from yesterday's Roots Picnic at Penn's Landing.

Upon my arrival at Festival Pier, I discovered that the Roots would be playing three (!) sets that day, and that they were on the stage at that very moment. I knew that the band had added a Sousaphone player for its current tour, but that didn't prepare me for how awesome it was to see some dude running all over the stage and jumping off the drum riser with a giant horn wrapped around his body.

?uestlove is, without a doubt, the most recognizable member of the Roots, so it's fitting that he was the Picnic's host. Well, actually he denied being the host. He was just the guy who introduced all of the acts and tossed bottles of Vitamin Water into the crowd between sets (and then mocked anyone who attempted to catch them one-handed).

Esperanza Spalding was the first non-Roots act of the day. The young singer-bassist played a set of jazzy songs with tempoes that I could never quite get a handle on. My only problem was that her music seemed tailor-made for small, dimly-lit rooms, not outdoor stages on the hottest day of the year.

Next up was J*Davey, who the non-host introduced as a group that should be a household name, but whose record label has given them trouble because of their different sound. I don't quite understand, since they sounded like perfectly fine electronic pop to me. Clearly, I would make a lousy record executive. Singer Jack Davey reminded me a bit of Rihanna; she has the model-like good looks, the peekaboo bangs, and even sang a song about sending an S.O.S. (a cover of the Police's "Message in a Bottle"). Keyboardist Brook D'Leau, meanwhile, had me worrying that his short-shorts with a foxtail hanging from them would become the latest horrifying hipster fashion trend.

More Roots! For their second set, the band started off with a cover of "Masters of War," sung by guitarist Kirk Douglas. Here's the version they performed at the I'm Not There concert in New York last fall, and it is awesome.

After that, Black Thought did a credible James Brown impression as the band tore through "Superbad." It was the second-tightest rendition of the song I've ever seen (Yeah, I saw James Brown once). Also, the band was joined by DJ Jazzy Jeff, who doesn't look much older than when he was being thrown out the front door by Uncle Phil.

The Cool Kids took the stage next. Considering that this was a festival curated by a rap group, it was somewhat odd that this was the only point of the day when a couple of guys paced the stage with microphones while a DJ played. From what I've heard of their stuff, the Cool Kids are super likable, with their retro, minimalist beats and outlandish boasts, but I haven't heard a whole lot and I find that live hip-hop is great if you're already a fan, but not so great if you're just getting an introduction. Case in point: the guys next to me who were rapping right along seemed to be having a splendid time. And when a rapper tells us to put our hands in the air, who are we to refuse?

On the one hand, I respect the fact that ?uestlove's (and let's face it, he's obviously the one picking the lineup) tastes in music are broad enough to include Deerhoof. On the other hand, I don't see how he could have thought a noise-rock band would be a good fit for this lineup in between a pair of throwback rappers and a retro-soul group. The problems I have with Deerhoof's recordings (mostly having to do with Satomi Matsuzaki's vocals) were even more pronounced in their live performance. Their set served as a chance to get some food and sit down for a few minutes in the air-conditioned DJ tent.

I'd heard nothing but great things about the live shows of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, so perhaps I had my expectations set too high and was doomed to be disappointed. Maybe it's the fact that they took the stage just as the sun was setting, making it feel about 15 degrees hotter. Maybe it was the sound problems that kept us from hearing Ms. Jones's voice until halfway through her first song, or the idiot hecklers standing behind me, or the fact that my legs felt like they were in no condition for dancing. In any case, the group didn't make a lasting impression on me, though I doubt it was their fault.

Seeing as "The Roots" was right there in the festival's name, you might expect the group to close out the day. Instead, they played the next-to-last set. And holy shit, what a set. Among the highlights were the return of bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard (somehow, I had completely missed the news that he left the group last year), who played a bass solo that was way cooler than a bass solo had any right to be. After that, the band launched into a medley of some of hip-hop's greatest beats and samples, from Biz Markie to O.D.B. to Nas to Talib Kweli. A typical rap act doing covers would be kind of lame, but a live band doing the same is electrifying. Oh, and they also played "You Got Me," "The Next Movement," and "The Seed." Those songs ain't bad, are they?

I've seen Gnarls Barkley twice, and I've learned that there are a few things you can count on from one of their shows:
  1. The band will be in matching costumes
  2. Cee-Lo will encourage the ladies to "pull out [their] titties."
  3. It will take forever for their equipment to be set up.
The third point was especially bothersome this time since, being an outdoor show, I'm sure there was a noise curfew in place; every minute the roadies were moving instruments onto the stage was a minute that Gnarls would be unable to play. Once the band actually appeared, they played a solid set. One of the things I love about a Gnarls show is that, while Cee-Lo is understandably the focus of attention, the rest of the band is completely into it and look like they're having the time of their lives as they play.

By the Numbers
  • Performers I wanted to see but didn't: 1 (Santogold, who cancelled, and who is so good that her involvement in Bud Light ads does not make me despise her)
  • Performers who paid tribute to the Godfather of Soul: 2 (The Roots and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings)
  • Performers who were bringing '88 back: 2 (The Cool Kids, who stated as much in "88," and the Roots, who implied it in their cover of "Made You Look")
  • Sets in which ?uestlove played the drums: 5 (Three times with the Roots, once with J*Davey, and once with Gnarls Barkley for a song, looking dapper in a jacket and bowtie)
  • Obama shirts in the crowd: too many to count (not only ones with official campaign logo, but also a wide variety of shirts that were obviously not created by the campaign. Prior to this year, I don't think I'd ever seen anybody wearing a shirt promoting a presidential candidate, and certainly not any that looked like they could have come from Urban Outfitters)
  • Bottles of Vitamin Water caught by me: 0 (Next time I'm bringing a baseball glove)
  • Random girls who grabbed my ass: 1 (Either she's in love, or she was providing a distraction while her friends cut in front of me)

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