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Sweat, Funk, and Euphoria at the Roots Picnic 2015

A first time festival goer sweats it out and has a good time in spite of himself.
May 31, 2015, 8:34pm

Photos by Pat Shahabian

I’ve never been to a music festival before. I spent most of my adult life avoiding them. Buying a ticket for the Roots Picnic felt great, dirty even. I figured if I was going to go to a music festival where I was only stoked on a couple of acts—that’s how it always is, right?—I might as well go to the one curated by one of music’s most respected luminaries. All I knew about music festivals up until this point is that you spend most of the day waiting for the one or two acts you actually came to see, they’re really crowded, and water is expensive. I was determined to have a good time. I drove by the festival location in the early afternoon to go pick up a camera from a friend's girlfriend (thanks Susan) and it already looked like my own personal hell. Cars and people as far as the eye could see. Fuck that.

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I parked my car two miles away and took an Uber. Then I successfully visited all three gates trying to secure my photo pass, each gate passing me off to the next. I hated it already. There were people everywhere all smelling of their own personal brand of funk. It wasn't even 2pm. Why is my back so sweaty? I should go home. The music gods seemingly airlifted me from the gate to the stage that Hiatus Kaiyote was playing. I think I blacked out through the crowd and came to as Nai Palm’s vocals soared through the PA. Holy shit. These Melbourne cats absolutely rip.

Hiatus Kaiyote

Questlove did right by the Picnic having this quartet melt faces with their offbeat blend of soul, funk, and filthy grooves. I fortunately spent most of my time on the stage side of the barriers, which allows me to say that Hiatus Kaiyote was the only act of the night that had a veritable who’s who of session and touring musicians standing stage side rightfully geeking the fuck out over songs with titles like “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk.” Bassist Paul Bender and keyboard player Simon Mavin’s lightning fast groove on “By Fire” left most of the audience standing mouths aghast as they blended technical prowess with absolutely disgusting runs. It’s hard to dance to this music, but its hard to not be really into what’s happening on stage. I’m officially having a good time.

After that I’ve got some time before the next act and I figure I should walk around and check out what festivals have to offer. Although this was my first, I now know these simple things to be true of all festivals: People will fight for shade from the sun. There will be a girl in a Chicago Bulls jersey, gauges, and dirty hair doing some drugged up version of the Macarena, alone. There will be a surprising amount of frat bro looking dudes getting way too excited and high fiving. Neon. You will wait. Festival goers have to be the most patient people I have ever met. They wait without complaint for mostly everything. Waiting for beer, waiting for water, waiting to use the bathroom, waiting for a basket of disappointing French fries and chicken fingers (I’m vegetarian but no one eating them looked enthused. Maybe it was the heat.), or just waiting for that one artist you paid $85 to see.

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A$AP Rocky

For many, that one artist could very well have been A$AP Rocky. Standing in the photo pit at the front of the stage I heard cries from the audience for water. "WATER!" These people were so committed to this festival that they were forgoing the basic sustenance required for human life. It was hard to sympathize with their self-imposed suffering, but I respect the flagrant disregard for that one thing that makes up half our biological existence for their favorite artists. This was, in fact, the first time that Rocky was performing any of the material from his new album At.Long.Last.A$AP live.

Rocky came out swinging, spitting fire from the second he hit the stage, exuding an energy I’ve never seen before. There’s something about a festival that gets these artists charged up. Maybe it’s the sea of dehydrated fans in the death throes of consciousness using the last of their physical strength to scream at the top of their lungs before passing right the fuck out and making security work overtime to carry your tired ass out as the A$AP crew rips through “Excuse Me” and “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2," some of Rocky’s strongest songs to date.

For much of the set a tribute to A$AP Yams was projected on the back drop, culminating in a shoutout from Rocky himself to his dearly departed friend. Though there was reverence for Yams throughout the set, Rocky and his crew made it clear to the audience that they were “here for a picnic.” Rocky asked everyone to “Smoke some weed, relax, and let [the new material] marinade” as they kept the energy going by dipping back into Long.Live.A$AP’s “Wild for the Night” before taking it down with “Electric Body.” The tempo and groove may be laid back, and the crowd may have been unfamiliar with the newer songs, but the energy at Penn’s Landing was definitely 100. I think I’m using that right. I really like the A$AP crews idea of a picnic.

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I never really understood what it was about a 25-year-old from Toronto that got literally every woman (and most men) all hot and bothered until the Weeknd walked on stage. This guy has the calming voice of Michael Jackson in his least creepy years with the confidence of Drake after three beers and hair that astrophysicists have yet to quantify in its ability to disobey all laws of gravity. His vocals sooth the audience into a state somewhere between a trance and sexual frenzy, most of them are feeling new feelings, and no one complaining about anything (except water). Me, I'm shocked that I’m seeing artists I'd never have spent money on before, and liking it.

Still, after “Drunk in Love” and “Wicked Games” I realize that I might not be cut out for the festival circuit. I’m getting tired, my legs hurt, I’m hungry, and I don’t really care about the Weeknd anymore. I just want to see Erykah Badu and the Roots and be on my way. It's a shitty feeling for someone who respects these acts immensely for the mark they’ve left on my musical soul. These are the artists that helped introduce hip hop, R&B, soul, and rap to this band nerd, who almost exclusively listened to jazz and metal. They’re ambassadors for good music; they’re aware and they want their audience to be aware, which is kind of the whole ethos of the Roots Picnic. But it’s late, I’ve been at it for nine hours, and I have sunburn in places I never thought possible.

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Erykah Badu

Next thing I know, Erykah is onstage. I spoke of D’Angelo’s angelic presence at his show at NYC’s Best Buy Theatre early this year, but here was Erykah Badu literally fucking floating right before my eyes. Help, Mr. Security Man, I need water, I am very clearly dehydrated like all these other fools, and I am seeing shit I haven’t seen since the time I did mushrooms and saw Cirque Du Soleil in an empty college amphitheater.

I pull out my phone to capture a brief moment of this otherworldly being as her and her vocals glide along as Questo and the Roots lay back into the fattest version of “Window Seat” I have ever heard. Festivals all of a sudden rule again. Bassist Mark Kelly and guitarist Kirk Douglas lay down a thick groove behind Erykah’s “On & On” with Questlove keeping it all together. Keeping everything together. This man hadn’t just brought all this talent to one stage, he brought every person there, thousands of people, together for a night of powerful music.

I can’t lump Roots Picnic in with the rest of the festival world, as this felt shockingly devoid of the blatant commercialism, advertising and marketing that plagues others like it that I have deliberately avoided my whole life. This was really just one day of good fucking music, front to back, from beginning to end. Festivals probably still suck. Roots Picnic did not.

Pat Shahabian is shotgunning Aquafinas.