Yesterday, the New York City-based Roots Picnic kicked off in Bryant Park. Typically held in their home town of Philadelphia in early June, this marks the first time the event has been held in New York, giving The Roots and their various musical friends an opportunity to showcase their diverse skills in their adopted home town. The first day of the two-day festival featured a diverse lineup, with a set by comedian and Chappelle’s Show co-writer Neal Brennan, DJ sets by The Roots’ versatile drummer Questlove and radio icons Stretch & Bobbito, and a fun performance from pop upstarts X Ambassadors. However, it was the show’s final set of the evening that really made an impact, as The Roots would bring out a bevy of special guests over two-and-a-half hours to create a unique and awesome showcase of hip hop, funk, soul, pop, and r&b.
The Roots kicked things off with a series of deep-cuts, including a performance of the jazzy Things Fall Apart track “Dynamite!”, giving Black Thought an early opportunity to show off his impressive skills on the mic. The band then started off “Proceed”, the lead single from their debut record Do You Want More, before following that up with breakthrough hit “Act Two (Love of My Life)”, which featured a guest spot by Common, who rapped his verse from the record with an undeniable energy. Common then stuck around to perform a mini set, performing “Go” and “The Food” from his 2005 album Be, before performing a topical and political freestyle that truly connected with the audience.
Common left the stage, and the Roots returned for another Things Fall Apart classic in “The Next Movement”, which featured a jam that eventually fizzled out into a solo segment by MPC finger drumming master Jeremy Ellis. If you aren’t familiar with Ellis, he is a nerdy looking British dude that creates huge beats on multiple MPC drum machines using nothing but his fingers. He is a sight to behold, running through a few distinct jams based around “Gonna Fly Now” aka “The Rocky Theme”, a James Brown track, and a celebratory run through the theme from Super Mario Bros. Ellis whipped the crowd into a frenzy with his unique musical talent, and he is an artist that needs to be seen to be believed.
Next up, Black Thought introduced John Mayer, who treated the excited fans to one of his first sets of solo material since October 2015. Of course, Mayer spent the past 10 months on tour with Dead & Company, but fans got to see Mayer in band-leader mode when he walked on stage with The Roots. He brought veteran bassist and John Mayer Trio member Pino Palladino with him to play the set, and he did not disappoint, linking up with his old friend Questlove to make up an impressive rhythm section that ruled the stage for the rest of the evening. Mayer would open the set with a solo ballad before dropping into a funky version of “Waiting on the World to Change” that was taken down a few steps to meet Mayer’s new vocal range. Mayer was on fire on guitar, pushing the band into full improv mode for a lengthy jam. The band then launched into a heartfelt version of “Gravity” that brought the house down with several impressive, Eric Clapton-esque guitar solos. The band then finished off Mayer’s portion of the evening with the funky, reggae-tinged cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” that he’s been playing in his live show for years.
Watch John Mayer perform “Gravity” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” with The Roots, courtesy of YouTube user shuamani
Of course, just because he was done with his portion of the show, doesn’t mean John Mayer was done for the evening. He stuck around to perform “You Got Me” with The Roots, adding rhythm guitar while Captain Kirk Douglas of The Roots crushed his traditional solo on the soulful track. The band then left the stage as beatbox master Rahzel entered. Rahzel’s shtick is a bit tired at this point, even if it remains ridiculously impressive. Yes, he did his “Transformers” segment, yes he performed “If Your Mother Only Knew” (and yes he did the beat and the chorus at the same time). The best part of his segment was easily when he and Black Thought teamed up to perform Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh‘s “La Di Da Di”.
Finally, it seemed time for D’Angelo to take the stage, when, out of nowhere, Dave Chappelle was introduced. He walked on stage and said “If I’m here it means two things. Kevin Hart isn’t available, and D’Angelo is late.” Needless to say, Questlove and Black Thought cracked up at his commentary, as the stage was set up around them for D’Angelo’s massive band. When the band took the stage, Pino Palladino re-joined the band (he is D’Angelo’s long time bass player as well), as well as Mayer, who would join D’Angelo for the entire set as lead guitarist. D’Angelo himself was incredible, with his unique soulful vocals reminiscent of Prince or James Brown.
The band was extremely tight, with Questlove leading the charge throughout as they ran through songs from throughout D’Angelo’s career. “Brown Sugar” and “Playa Playa” were both highlights from D’Angelo’s Voodoo record, as the singer absolutely owned the stage with his awesome abilities as a frontman and band leader. The set also featured a healthy dose of material from his remarkable 2014 album Black Messiah, including an awesome take on “Back to the Future (Part I)”. Mayer had a goofy grin on his face throughout the set, seemingly in disbelief that he got take part in this set. He returned his excitement ten-fold, with a number of wild guitar solos that added a unique element to D’Angelo’s set. It was truly a “had-to-be-there” moment, and all the musicians on stage knew it, as everyone on stage was jubilant as the set came to a close.
Here’s over an hour of fan-shot footage, which includes the entire D’Angelo segment, courtesy of YouTube user Dear Marie BR:
This was a truly incredible showcase of music that will not be soon forgotten! The Roots return to Bryant Park today for three wild sets, backing up David Byrne, Nile Rodgers, and Wu-Tang Clan in an ode to NYC as they bring their NYC Roots Picnic to a close.