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Once Again Back Is The Incredible

By TK featuring Tracer Bullet | Music | June 9, 2009 |

By TK featuring Tracer Bullet | Music | June 9, 2009 |

Well, The Roots Picnic has come and gone, and it was truly an epic event. I’ll spare you the gory details of the group’s drunken escapades — that’s what Facebook is for, after all. Let’s just say it was a balls-out (but not literally) fun weekend, filled with booze, laughter and meeting some really great people. To all that made the trip, I didn’t hate any of you. To all that didn’t or couldn’t — I’m incredibly disappointed in all of you, and I hope you suffer from soul-crushing regret for the rest of your pathetic lives. Because while all the goofing off and boozing was fun, the Roots Picnic itself was nothing short of awesome.

Of course, because I am an old, crotchety bastard, I didn’t succeed in seeing every single act, which is a shame. I particularly was interested in catching Philly locals Written House, but instead a few of us skipped the earlier acts in favor of catching The Hangover, which was absolutely the appropriate movie for the condition we were in. However, I did succeed in seeing everything that I wanted to see. So allow me to share with you the glory… and along the way, begin to repair the damage done to our lovely music section in my absence.

Santigold34.jpgSantigold: Curious spelling change aside, Santigold was fabulous. As usual, her fashion sense was suspect at best, but she was rockin’ it the way that only she can. She shimmied and shook and the crowd was riveted by her every movement. She played her couple of radio hits, and all around played a solid set. Playing with a live band was somewhat new to her (she admitted as much on stage), but they musicians melded with her seamlessly, aided by a particularly talented bassist and some solid percussion. L.E.S. Artistes remained nice and low-key, with minimal production, yet still effective. When she came out with “You’ll Find a Way,” she kicked things into a higher gear, bouncing around the stage, jamming with her musicians. The grooves laid down were intense and really got people shakin’ it, which is an achievement considering the sweltering heat. My biggest concern was that her voice wouldn’t work well in a large, open outdoor venue such as this one, but I’m happy to report that I was wrong. Her accoustics were spot-on, and on tracks where she flexes her vocal prowess like “I’m A Lady,” she was really able to shine. Overall, a great show, and I’d definitely see her again. Not so much with Dustin though, because I think she was a little too funky for him.

BlackKeys_chili.jpgThe Black Keys: Ah, now we get to the meat of things. The Keys are easily one of my favorite new bands of this decade, a blues-rock duo from Ohio that features fat, dirty songs about love and loss. They love feedback, they love power chords, and they are unbelievable, both live and on their recordings. They played a solid set — not the best I’ve seen them, but the last time I saw them was a much smaller, more intimate venue. Lead singer Dan Auerbach’s appearance was radically different from the last time I saw him — gone was the massive beard and long hair, which I confess I almost missed. But true to form, the Black Keys fucking ROCKED. While I was consistently annoyed at the drunken “hit-single” fan next to me who kept yelling “Play “Your Touch” so I can leave!” they pulled off an outstanding, if brief, set.

I’m consistently amazed at how just two guys can create such a massive amount of sound, but they did. Props again to the soundboard at Penn’s Landing for making the bands sound terrific — no small feat given that it’s a large, outdoor space right on the water. But the Keys cranked their way through “10:00 AM Automatic,” “I’ll Be Your Man” and others, proving once again that they are not only unbelievably talented, but remarkable performers as well. While they didn’t get to play my faves like “Meet Me In The City” or “”Do The Rump,” I still have no complaints. Oh, and they didn’t play “Your Touch” either, so get fucked, annoying guy. There was minimal conversation or space in between the songs — not counting when Auerbach blew out his amp because the boy simply rocks too damn hard — and instead they just focused on rocking our faces off. The Black Keys are no frills, workmanlike rock and roll. They’re not interested in goofing off, telling jokes, or telling the audience how much they love wherever the hell they’re playing. They’re interested in blowing the doors off the place, teaching people the beauty of the blues and of rock and roll, and in giving each performance everything they’ve got. I doubt you’ll ever see these two fellows mail it in.

And it worked. Even our semi-benevolent leader, a lover of all predominately sissy music, even he loved them. The Black Keys have been around for a while now (six albums and one EP in the last eight years), and they show no signs of slowing down, in the studio or on the stage, and we are all better off because of that.

fight the power.jpgPublic Enemy (w/ The Roots): I have three words for you: Holy Fucking Shit. This was easily the part I was anticipating the most, and it to be honest? The 60 minutes these guys played alone was worth the price of admission. Had I known they would have been this incredible, I would have pulled a gun on all of my friends and FORCED them to come. They were that good. Good enough for me, Tracer Bullet, Pissboy, SaBrina, Genny and jM to charge our way into the crowd to get a better look.

Instead of playing just another set, this one was special. Once in a lifetime, even. Backed by the full compliment of The Roots as their house band (with Black Thought even joining them on the mic for some songs), they played their 1988 album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back from start to finish. Public Enemy was mostly all there - Chuck D., Flavor Flav, Professor Griff. Unfortunately, Terminator X was not there, but the two DJ’s provided some fantastic turntable work.

nation_millions.jpgSo, those of you who are PE fans know that It Takes A Nation Of Millions, their second album, is one of their seminal works. It’s a genre-defining record full of power, politics and genius. To hear it performed live, in its entirety, was a treat unlike any other. I’ve seen Public Enemy a couple of times (though not since… um… 1992. Fuck.) and let me tell you — 17 years since then, and 21 years since the album’s release, and they did not miss a single step. Tracks like “Party For Your Right To Fight,” “Don’t Believe The Hype” and “Bring The Noise” are the classics off the album, and they performed as strongly on Saturday as they did 20 years ago. It was amazing stuff. My personal faves, “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” “Prophets of Rage,” “Louder Than A Bomb” and especially “She Watch Channel Zero” were beyond incredible, and crossed into transcendent. Even though I’m sure more than 75% if the incredibly young audience had never heard the album before, the the entire place was going wild for their performance. Chuck D’s voice is as badass as ever, and when he first bellowed out “BASS! How low can you go? Death Row - what a brother know” on “Bring The Noise,” you could feel it in your spine. It gave me chills, which, considering the 85 degree heat and the six or seven beers I’d consumed at that point, is saying something. Similarly, when he was hollering out the chorus to “Channel Zero” or roaring out “On the strength, the situation’s unreal / I got a raw deal, so I’m goin’ for the STEEL” in “Black Steel” — if Penn’s Landing had a roof, it would have been torn right the fuck off.

Flavor Flav was also a remarkable presence. Gone was all the silly reality-TV nonsense, the former crackhead woes, all of that. Instead, he was a maniacal dervish on stage, running back and forth, leaping into the air, kicking his legs out and pumping his fist. For his performance on this one day alone, I can forgive the past decade of indiscretions. He was the perfect compliment to the heavy pounding of Chuck D’s voice, a whirlwind of attitude and comedy. He made the crowd giggle and laugh, but was also surprisingly somber a couple of times. But most of all, he was just pure fucking fun. The exclusively Flav tracks (like “Cold Lampin”) have never been my favorite Public Enemy tracks, but on this day, even those were enjoyable.

And mad, massive, enormous, monumental amounts of respect and love must be given to The Roots, who were so much more than a house band. They were, as Seth put it, unbelievably tight. The stage was ridiculously crowded, what with Public Enemy and the random S1-W’s milling around, and yet The Roots made their presence felt. The music was perfect — never overpowering, never overshadowing the fact that this was a Public Enemy show. But still, they created an atmosphere and a musical tapestry that complimented PE absolutely gorgeously. From ?uestlove’s spectacular drumming, to the throbbing, rumbling, funky basslines, to the almost incongruous, yet still just right presence of Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson on sousaphone.

Look, The Roots are already incredible live. To merge them so seamlessly and harmoniously with Public Enemy was… well, it beat the hell out of the time I saw PE and Anthrax. And that show was good. Coupled with the occasional rhyming of Black Thought, the entire set was marvelous, and every last minute to be savored.

ugk_tv_on_the_radio.jpgTV On The Radio: Wow. I mean… wow. TV On The Radio was, in a word, disappointing. They had some very difficult obstacles to overcome, not the least of which was that they were following one very good performance (Santigold), one excellent performance (The Black Keys) and one holy-fucking-shit-once-in-a-lifetime performance (Public Enemy and The Roots). So the bar had been set ridiculously high. They did not even come close to succeeding to the expectations.

Their biggest problem was that they were simply flat. The easy culprit would be the sound, except that the sound at Penn’s Landing had been terrific for the entire day (and would continue to be for The Roots’ closing set). The sound system had successfully managed to accommodate rock and roll, hip hop, electronic, jazz and funk without missing a step. So unless there was a sudden staffing change or a blown fuse somewhere, I’ve no choice but to place the blame firmly on the band’s shoulders. TV On The Radio is a difficult band. Their sound is eclectic, a surreal hybrid of rock, funk, electronica, soul and jazz, with a charismatic and talented (if somewhat bizarre) lead singer, Tunde Adebimpe, and a diverse and superbly skilled backing band. They are somewhat dependent on processing and production, but from what I’ve heard, they’ve put on numerous excellent live shows.

Unfortunately, such was not the case on Saturday. Their guitars were barely listenable, and Adebimpe’s voice, usually flexible and versatile, came out ranging from droning to screechy — a difficult misstep to make. With three solid albums under their belt (2002’s OK Calculator doesn’t make the cut for me), TV On The Radio is an interesting, riveting band. To see them flounder so thoroughly was quite the let-down.

The-Roots55.jpgThe Roots: TK asked me to review the Roots’ performance at Saturday’s picnic, and I should start by saying that I am not a music writer and I was not thinking like a reporter during the show. (I was thinking about getting high, whereas a reporter would be thinking about getting drunk.) Please forgive me if this doesn’t reach the level you’ve come to expect from the music writing done here.

In short: The Roots blew up the stage.

That’s it. For an hour, they cranked out a nonstop wall of hip-hop, funk, blues and rock that left at least three women pregnant and restored sight to a blind man. There are no breaks in a Roots concert. They simply explode, somehow raising their energy level until the crowd is left limp, ragged and desperate for more.

Suffice to say, I’m a fan.

They kicked off with “The Next Movement,” followed it with Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Paradise City,” a revamped version of “Bad to the Bone” and followed that up with “The Seed 2.0” and stormed into “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction).” I think. I was a little messed up and there were a lot of lightly dressed women near me so I wasn’t focusing closely on the set list, but “Here I Come” was also played.

I will take the Roots in concert against any band you’d care to name. Some might work as hard, but none work harder. Some might cover as much musical distance, but none cover more. Say what you want about one of Bruce Springsteen’s marathon shows, but let’s see that motherfucker augment the baseline with a tuba. (And Tuba Gooding Jr. puts in work, ya heard?)

My only complaint about the Roots’ live shows is that they’re too damned short. I imagine, though, that the amount of energy they expend would kill them if they played for much longer than an hour.

Really, if you get the chance, you must catch these cats live. Their studio albums just don’t capture the energy, the excitement, the sheer damn power of their concerts. The Roots fucking rock.
—Tracer Bullet

TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here. Special thanks to Tracer Bullet for the assist.

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TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.