Music

Live: The Second Annual Roots Picnic, Featuring Public Enemy, Asher Roth, and a Whole Lot of Excited 16-Year-Olds

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Yeah, it was Philly, but so what–SOTC special correspondent Christopher R. Weingarten reports.

The Roots, Public Enemy, Asher Roth, Kid Cudi, TV on the Radio, and More
Festival Pier, Philadelphia
June 6, 2009

The second annual Roots Picnic, an eclectic fete held on the Illadelph side of the Delaware River, was hopefully the only time Public Enemy will have to play before Asher Roth. But the whole event was such a damn good party–who really cared? On the main stage Public Enemy, the Roots, and legendary Philly DJ Cash Money exemplified the old model, prizing the “respect your elders” axiom of with an array of covers, samples and bangers. In the air-conditioned second stage tent, Kid Cudi and Asher Roth bowed to the new digital movement, posing for 100 camera phone photos that are tearing up Flickr as we speak. But whatever side you stood on, the event couldn’t have happened without both camps.

While P.E. and the Roots brought the credibility, Cudi and Roth brought the energy–it was hip-hop Beatlemania for their appearances, shrieking girls and pumped dudes in tight jeans wearing sunglasses indoors, camera phones blinking in adoring unison. Meanwhile outside, calm, heavyset dudes rapped along to “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos.” The disconnect was most obvious when ex-Floetry songstress Amanda Diva tried to pump up the pre-Kudi crowd with some Public Enemy lyrics, shouting, “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant…” She held out the mic to a tepid response. “Y’all don’t know Public Enemy?” she whined sadly, seriously sounding like a little something died inside her. She tried to invite someone–anyone!–on stage to please not embarrass this entire audience and rap the third verse from “Fight The Power” for her. After a bunch of sad tries and false starts, some bearded dude who looks like he builds guitar pedals finally got it right.

Here are some other songs Kid Cudi’s audience didn’t know the words to: “Buggin’ Out,” “Slow Down,” “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” and “Daytona 500.” They do know Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On” and a whole shit-ton of Kid Cudi songs. Pretty-boy frat-rapper Asher Roth, wearing a Larry Bird jersey (cute gimmick, dumbass) jokingly busted a move to Soul For Real’s 1995 rhythm-and-bubblegum hit “Candy Rain,” but the only people singing along were the grown folks in the media tent.

But don’t get it twisted: Rap’s not dead just because a bunch of 16-year-old kids don’t know the words to a 20-year-old song. The Cudi/Roth crowd brought energy, which helped keep the entire party lively, from the roasting afternoon into the chilly night. Busdriver’s art-fucked splatter-poetry was greeted with flying beach balls, Brooklyn’s own Antibalas had people cheering for opening drumbeats, Ohio garage-rawkers Black Keys were a bloozy triumph, and Santigold lacked any sense of stage presence whatsoever but still had people jumping all over the place–especially when she, too, dropped a copy of “Turn My Swag On.”

Even though they played while the sun was still setting, Public Enemy felt like the true headliners, performing their classic-beyond-classic It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in its entirety for the last time in a 20th anniversary run, backed by the Roots and Antibalas. Never ones to turn down an opportunity to be contradictory, P.E. played the album in reverse, starting with a headbanger version of album closer “Party For Your Right To Fight” and ending with sorta-opener “Bring The Noise.” Although sometimes the Roots/Antibalas live band experience flattened the tracks (why didn’t anyone lean into that Slayer riff in “She Watch Channel Zero?!”), it was mostly an exercise in pure mayhem. The line up was huge: Five Antibalas horn dudes, Roots’ own Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr” Bryson, two guitarists, two percussionists, keyboards, P.E.’s manic DJ Lord, ?uestlove on the drums, Chuck, Griff, Black Thought, and some feedback when the sound fucked up–the sheer amount of noise was the perfect tribute to the original manic, frenetic, Bomb Squad production. Extra tension and unease was thrown in when Chuck’s martial delivery and Black Thought’s funky feel both delivered the same lines at different times. The Roots were clearly pumped: Their arrangement of “Bring The Noise” dorkily added measures to the Marva Whitney vamp that weren’t even sampled in the Public Enemy version. Plus “Fight The Power” as an encore!

By 10 p.m. the energy had died down and a huge chunk of the crowd had dispersed before TV On The Radio and the Roots, though both bands pulled out all the stops. TVOTR’s Tunde Adibimpe careened across the stage for “Wolf Like Me” and “Dancing Choose,” and the band truly benefitted from the mushy sound, playing “Staring At The Sun” and “Young Liars” as the huge blasts of 4AD noise they deserve to be. The Roots let the party go into the Bonnaroo sphere for their jam-heavy closing set. Their 20-minute version of “You Got Me” perfectly captured the feel of the seemingly endless party the day had been, not to mention the geeky music-nerd world they inhabit: The endless song included a reggae breakdown, a talkbox solo, a bit of “Love To Love You Baby,” a heavy cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” bits of “Bad To The Bone,” “Mannish Boy,” and “Immigrant Song,” a bass solo, false endings, Amanda Diva, and other assorted craziness. Like the Roots themselves, the Festival paid off extra for the heads that paid attention, but you didn’t and still don’t need to know trivia in order to dance.

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