As much as an entertainer Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is, it’s more so his skill as a businessman and entrepreneur that gave him the accessibility to curate the Budweiser Made In America celebration in Philadelphia this past Labor Day weekend. Whether you like his music or not, the fact remains that Jay-Z has major clout in this industry, and with that comes the ability to enlist first-class acts at this homegrown festival, just a short train ride downstream from his hometown of Brooklyn. The festival aimed to bring a Coachella/Outside Lands feel to Philadelphia, covering a wide spectrum of genres from blues to hip-hop, and electronic dance-based music to indie rock. The immediate east coast has lacked a tenured festival of this level in recent years and the hope is to build upon this to fill that opportunity.
Over the past two and a half years Gary Clark Jr. has elevated to the caliber of headliner status, doing this all prior to releasing his first proper full length album; a much deserved accolade for the Texan blues guitarist. Clark opened up the festival on Saturday with a blistering early afternoon performance. On “Bright Lights,” he progressively built up the introduction to the song, giving it a whole new life. His talent stretches well beyond anything currently in the vein of modern blues, but it’s evident that his style as a solo artist is effectively rooted in those that walked before him. In fact, it was Eric Clapton’s 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival that helped launch Gary Clark Jr. into the mainstream, eventually helping him secure a deal with Warner Brothers Records; his full length debut is set to release in late October.
She’s Cindi Mayweather to some, queen of the Androids to others, but you shall address her as Ms. Monae. Shortly after 4:00pm on Saturday afternoon, Janelle Monae took the Liberty Stage by force when she and her impressive band delivered the most energized performance of the day. Leading off the set was the opening pair of songs, “Dreams Are Forever” into “Faster,” from her most recent album The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III). Uncloaking herself from beneath dark grim reaper garb, Monae appeared possessed by the music, so focused on the performance, yet so aware of the surrounding instrumentals. Guitarist Kellindo Parker took the music to another world during featured solos, especially during the band’s cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” In anticipation of new material surfacing from Monae, she featured a new track titled “Electric Lady,” rumored to be the titled of her new album set to release at some point before the year’s end.
Inside the Freedom Tent you could feel the humidity of a tightly packed electronic dance crowd as the steady pulse of the music controlled each person’s movement in what felt like complete unison. The weekend featured sets from Calvin Harris, Afrojack and Alesso among many others. Backstage, next door to the Freedom Tent, Grammy-award winning DJ/producer Skrillex appeared relaxed while he smoked a cigarette and joked with friends, moments before going onstage. His small stature would shortly transform into a massive eruption of piercing break beats and digital destruction. The stage literally shook for the entirety of the set as Skrillex called out cues from high atop his spaceship-sized production setup.
Performing in the early evening was revered R&B/soul artist D’Angelo, making his comeback to music just over the summer after he was featured at the Bonnaroo Superjam alongside many former Soulquarians. Backed by a talented team including Pino Palladino on bass and Chris Dave on drums, D’Angelo performed old and new material with guitar in hand, a newly acquired talent during his absence, and behind the Fender Rhodes. Other high points from Saturday’s sets included a performance by Brooklyn-based sextet Dirty Projectors. The trio of female vocalists provided precise vocal patterns surrounding the contrasting voice of male vocalist and guitarist David Longstreth. I am sure Dirty Projectors’ obsessive fan Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson made a convincing case to Roc Nation to have the band perform to round out the indie rock presence at the festival.
Leading up to Jay-Z’s prime time set Saturday evening, fans had in mind several possibilities for special guests the rap mogul might bring out. Wife Beyonce would be fitting, as would Kanye West with the release of Watch The Throne last year. Or maybe Rihanna would make an appearance on behalf of the man that helped lay the groundwork for her career. Following Jay-Z’s set opener “Public Service Announcement,” President Barack Obama made his own public service announcement over the jumbo screens in a pre-recorded message encouraging everyone to get out and vote this November. He spoke of Jay-Z’s rise as a young New York entrepreneur, making it out of the Brooklyn projects and solidifying his career, and how important it is to believe in one’s self.
Jay-Z’s set was a montage of hits including “Empire State of Mind,” “Numb/Encore,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” “Since you were so good to me tonight, Philly, I’m gonna be good to you,” the Roc Nation executive said prior to handing the keys over to Kanye West and his G.O.O.D. Music collective, which included Common, 2 chainz, Pusha T and Big Sean. The half hour feature led into a closing moment when Jay-Z asked West back out stage to perform their Watch The Throne track “…In Paris,” flanked by a stream of fireworks shooting high above the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Opening the day on Sunday at the Liberty Stage was British-based Roc Nation label mate Rita Ora. Dressed in tiger print pull over and a black beanie, Ora surely fulfilled the rap infused female pop singer persona as she sang material from her expansive debut which included inputs from Kanye West, The Dream and Diplo among others. Jay-Z certainly was looking to showcase the investment by making Rita Ora’s presence known at Made In America to a cultured audience.
While they made be made in Sweden, The Hives performance in the late afternoon was truly an experience meant to be made in Philadelphia during their set. Sweating through their tuxedos in a light rain, The Hives brought a gritty guitar driven punk energy unmatched by any other set at the festival. Lead singer Pelle Almqvist had the crowd at his command as he trekked through the barricade and aggressively got the audience involved.
Returning to perform for a second day was Gary Clark Jr., an honor that only Jay-Z himself had the opportunity to fulfill. Migrating on Sunday to the Liberty Stage led fans to experience Clark’s set in a more intimate setup. Jay-Z and wife Beyonce stood in the wings watching the set as fans chanted “Gary, Gary, Gary,” begging for more out of the explosive blues guitarist. The energy of the crowd and feeling of the music seemed even more electric than day one as Clark tore up the stage.
Later on Sunday, Run-D.M.C.’s surviving members halted their decade long absence from the stage by returning to an eager crowd. The set featured Jam Master Jay’s sons TJ and J’Son Mizell onstage to fulfill their father’s legacy in music in a featured segment. Interestingly enough, waiting to go on just after their set was a new generation of hip-hop, the controversial Los Angeles-based collective Odd Future. Their rise in the realm of current hip-hop has been immediate, one year ago in a visit through Philadelphia the group played to a crowd of hundreds at the First Unitarian Church, this year playing on the grounds of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to thousands. Jay-Z showed support for the group led by the ever-maniacal Tyler the Creator by standing side stage to catch some of the set.
Throughout the weekend it appeared that many of the acts opted to perform to a backing track; meeting the current standard of live performance in some mainstream music heard today. Drake, Odd Future, Rita Ora and Maybach Music Group among several others decided to tighten up their sets with this ingredient in the live setup, however, it has always seemed like a falsified representation of the artists live talent when this occurs. Luckily, Pearl Jam, the Sunday night main attraction, was not one of the bands that opted to play to a pre-recorded track; not even sure how that could work for them.
With a blue haze covering the steps of the Art Museum, a small entourage and the band could be seen from a distance making their way to the stage just before 9:00pm to the sound of Ennio Morricone’s theme to The Good the Band and the Ugly. “We’d like to thank Jay-Z for giving us wings, for giving these other bands wings,” Vedder said with gratitude in regards to the festival invitation. During the main set Pearl Jam featured “Even Flow,” “Got Some,” “Jeremy” and Clash cover “Know Your Rights.”
In a light rain, Pearl Jam opened the second portion of their set with a resonating cover of The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me.” The distinct piano opening provided by keyboard/organ collaborator Boom Gaspar led into the explosive track; Vedder screaming into the night air during the chorus providing the emotional climax point of the piece. Guitarist Mike McCready covered the full length of the stage in his extensive solo on “Alive,” while Vedder christened the crowd with his bottle of red wine, closely engaging with fans. To close out the evening, Jay-Z joined Pearl Jam onstage for a cover of his Rick Rubin-produced track “99 Problems,” a co-headliner tribute to the joining of two musical forces engrained in the track, the rhyme interwoven with the sharp guitar break beat. For the finale, Pearl Jam topped off the show with a version of “Rockin’ In the Free World,” a freeing moment that hit home strongly with the city that houses the Liberty Bell.
Philadelphia played excellent host to the Budweiser Made In America festival this Labor Day, the event ran effectively smooth as planned without delay. Throughout the weekend, the music seemed seamless as the three stage setup allowed transitions to take just minutes from set to set. Music from all demographics was represented at the festival giving fans a variety of different experiences and acts to choose from. Looking forward to next year, based on the immediate response, the city of Philadelphia can expect a strong push to be made for a second annual event to take place on the Parkway. The question now becomes, what artists will Jay-Z partner with to produce an even larger draw?