New York City has no shortage of music festivals, and so from the moment the Roots Picnic opened its gates on Saturday afternoon, there was a lot to live up to. A Manhattan extension of the party that Questlove and Co. have been throwing in Philadelphia for almost a decade, the two-day fest took place in the snug confines of Bryant Park with a bill that included the Wu-Tang Clan, D'Angelo, John Mayer, David Byrne, and Chic bandleader Nile Rodgers. And despite the spotty weather (and some lateness issues with D'Angelo), the weekend was all but perfect. Set after set, jam after jam, the Roots Picnic made its case to become an NYC institution.
Saturday's opening acts included local founding fathers of hip-hop Jungle Brothers, who gave the weekend's devoted old school heads exactly what they wanted, nailing rhymes like it was 1989. Across the park on the Picnic's 6th Avenue stage, Dave Chappelle was on hand to introduce his friend, comic and Chappelle Show co-creator Neal Brennan, and couldn't resist taking the stage himself to do a minute of stand-up.
"I hope everybody votes," Chappelle said. "I know it's a touchy decision: Hillary Clinton versus white Malcolm X. That crazy carrot top-head motherfucker's going to kill us all...and lower my taxes."
There were strong performances from UK rapper Lady Leshurr, trap MC Kevin Gates (who tore through his street hit "2 Phones" in a white thawb and Saudi shemagh), and local radio DJ legends Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia. But as night fell and the park became bathed in the light of Midtown's skyscrapers, the John Mayer and D'Angelo fanatics made their presence known, crowding toward the main stage and cheering for the funk to begin.
First came The Roots themselves. Nine straight years of Philadelphia festivals has shown that if a Roots Picnic is anything, it's the chance to take in the kind of "holy shit!" collaborative jams that have become The Roots' day-to-day job. Things were no different in Bryant Park as Black Thought, Questlove, and company exploded onto the stage with "Game Theory," "Dynamite," and their 1996 classic "Clones." Common surprised the crowd as he appeared just in time to deliver his verse on "Act Too," followed by his own mini-set of "Go!," "The Food," "The Light" and an a cappella freestyle dedicated to Black Lives Matter.
Common waved goodbye, and was quickly replaced by John Mayer, who utilized The Roots as a backing band to deliver modulated, funked-out versions of his greatest hits including "Paper Doll," "Waiting on the World to Change," and "Gravity." Eager to show off the soloing chops he's honed while touring all summer with Dead & Company, Mayer was a force to be reckoned with, wailing on his stratocaster like a red fox at the start of winter mating season.
The evening climaxed with none other than D'Angelo, although he certainly made everyone wait around for it. Booking the R&B Black Messiah himself is always a gamble—and the Roots nearly lost theirs Saturday as they were forced to stall on stage, eating up time after Mayer's set with extra jamming and a beatbox interlude courtesy of Rahzel. For a second, Chappelle reappeared, telling the crowd, "Obviously if I'm out here, two things are true: Kevin Hart couldn't be here and D'Angelo's late." But D'Angelo did eventually appear, smiling with a cigarette in hand, and immediately got to work as the night's headliner (Mayer did stick around to play backing guitar). With a setlist that packed highlights from all three of his solo records, D'Angelo fell into a comfortable rhythm with The Roots while the crowd swayed to each woozy downbeat.
Sunday afternoon hit its stride with 22-year-old trap wunderkind Lil Uzi Vert, rockers Deerhoof, and legendary producer Swizz Beats, whose two young sons danced giddily on stage. The Picnic's second stage reached critical rap mass as Roots frontman Black Thought hosted a "live mixtape" freestyle session that saw Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Royce da 5'9", Pharoahe Monch, Smif n Wessun, and Freeway all jump on the mic.
Sunday's headlining set began with David Byrne, who performed a series of unreleased songs written for an upcoming musical theater production based on the life of Joan of Arc, along with the Talking Heads classic "Born Under Punches." Intelligent and groovy but also deeply bizarre, Byrne's new material had a middling effect on the crowd, much of which was already a little buzzed and just eager to see Wu-Tang.
But before Method Man, RZA, and Raekwon appeared, disco and funk legend Nile Rodgers was given the chance to front The Roots, and for half an hour he reminded the thousands on hand just how irreplaceable he's been throughout the last thirty years of music. Between Chic hits like "Le Freak" and "Good Times," Rodgers delivered a medley of hits he's helped write with other acts, including Diana Ross's "I'm Coming Out," Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," and Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." Rodgers's brand of crisp, uptempo disco has managed to miraculously age well over the years, and his set was unquestionably the surprise highlight of the entire weekend.
Oh, and Wu-Tang? All you need to know about The Wu-Tang Clan is that they are still, after all this time, nothing to fuck with.
With its excellent lineup, ideal location, reasonable ticket price, quick lines, ample facilities, seamless pacing, and dizzying array of guest stars (this recap is already too long to include rundowns of Alicia Keys's surprise set, The Sugarhill Gang's interlude, and Amy Schumer's brief emcee cameo), the first Roots Picnic NYC delivered on all its promises and more.
Over and over throughout the weekend, various members of The Roots stressed that they hope to make this an annual NYC tradition. Should they end up getting what they want, we'll be there again.