The Roots’ annual Picnic festival is always a reliable smorgasbord of international talents. Saturday’s third annual event at the Festival Pier in Philadelphia brought a heavy set from the Clipse, Senegal’s horn-stocked Baja and the Dry Eye Crew, ukulele-strumming one-gal-band TuneYards and Detroit’s Mayer Hawthorne, who looks like Buddy Holly and sings like Smokey Robinson.
Things got serious when the sun went down and masterful live act (and Jimmy Fallon house band) the Roots took the stage. Anchored by the mighty ?uestlove, who rocked a T-shirt emblazoned with Prince’s mug shot (the Artist Formerly Known As was arrested in 1980 for pranks on a plane), the Roots came out swinging with “Here I Come” and hellfire cameos by Philly homeboy Dice Raw and ex-bassist Leonard Hubbard. John Legend, who as Rolling Stone reported is currently finishing up a collaboration with the Roots called Wake Up, joined the crew for richly rendered socially conscious soul in the mold of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
Legend and the Roots kicked off their set with a righteous, roof-ripping cover of Eugene McDaniels’ “Compared To What” and followed it up with an equally powerful rendition of Bill Withers’ anti-war epistle “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” When Legend exited, the Wu entered. Meth, Raekwon and Ghostface rowdily ran down the recently released Wu Massacre start to finish with the Roots backing, closing out with the classic “C.R.E.A.M.” from the seminal 36 Chambers. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Roots Picnic without the obligatory Beanie Sigel cameo, and the Philly MC made his presence known on Saturday with a brief walk-on.
Vampire Weekend closed out the festivities with a short, snappy, super-tight set that mixed choice nuggets from their self-titled debut (the hyper-pop of “A-Punk,” the cool jerk of “Oxford Comma”) with standout tracks from their latest disc Contra (the bobble-head-inducing “Holiday” and the rocket-fueled neo-ska of “Cousins”). Frontman Ezra Koenig yelped with popped-collar abandon and played his guitar like it was a cross-bow and he was shooting Cupid’s arrow right into the heart of the crowd. “It’s so great to be playing the Roots Picnic, they are the first band I ever paid money to see,” he said, before sending the spent, sun-dazed crowd off into the good night with a heart-tugging run through “Walcott.”