Stars and Stripes

Jill Scott : Philly R&B star.
Jill Scott : Philly R&B star.
Posted: July 02, 2013

SUPPOSE WE threw a party and everyone came.

That's the aim of the "America's birthday" celebration "Wawa Welcome America," which takes over Center City every July Fourth holiday week.

This year, the dream could come true as never before. The talent lineup for the Philly 4th of July Jam on the Parkway extravangaza - billed as the "largest free concert in America" - is exceptionally strong, and the most contemporary and diverse in Welcome America history.

We're talking John Mayer, J. Cole, Demi Lovato, Jill Scott, Ne- Yo, Grace Potter and Ben Taylor, with backing throughout by the Roots (who'll also get their own set). And for the first time ever, this megaconcert will be shared nationwide on the music-video channels VH1 and Palladia, as well as carried locally by traditional TV partner 6ABC.

Organizers have worked overtime to pack the rest of the Welcome America week - kicking off today - with free fun events.

We're talking outdoor movie screenings ("Silver Linings Playbook" in Rittenhouse Square tonight at 9, then "Rocky" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art tomorrow) and interactive foodie parties sparked in part by lead festival sponsor Wawa. Like today's midday Wawa Dairy "Go 4th and Learn" milking party at Franklin Square, 6th and Race streets, and tomorrow's Wawa Hoagie Day at the National Constitution Center and Visitor Center Lawn, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Of course, it couldn't be Independence Day without patriotic ceremonies and parades in the historic district on Thursday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and a big, overlapping Benjamin Franklin Parkway multiblock party that starts at noon Thursday then runs up to the 4th of July Jam & Fireworks (7 to 11 p.m. Thursday).

The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to Penn's Landing Tuesday at 8 p.m. Then Peter Nero and the Philly Pops go "Pops! on Independence" with patriotic music Wednesday at 8 p.m. in front of Independence Hall (thanks Peco).

And there's a headline set Saturday night at 8 by Philly-based Marsha Ambrosius, followed by yet another arty Pyrotecnico fireworks spectacular over the Delaware that's sponsored by the Adventure Aquarium and part of the "Taste of Philadelphia" food festival at Penn's Landing running Friday to Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. the first two days, until 3 p.m. for the finale.

Crunching the numbers

Twenty-five percent of attendees for Welcome America events venture here from outside the Philadelphia region and, in a good year, pump up hotel occupancy close to capacity for a night or two, according to the Sports Industry Research Center at Temple University.

This year, given that July 4 falls on a Thursday, "we decided to compact the number of Welcome America days while packing each one tighter with more events," said spokeswoman Lauren Cox. "Our aim is to bring and keep people in town for the whole week into the weekend, lose fewer to the shore. That's why we're doing 'Taste of Philly' at the end."

Attracting about a half-million people to the Parkway, the signature Philly 4th of July Jam has traditionally featured veteran headliner acts with an older (and often hometown) audience appeal. Think Stevie Wonder, Hall and Oates, Patti LaBelle. But since the Roots' Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson took over as talent curator three years ago, the lineups have been getting hipper and more youthful. And this year, with the gang at VH1 plugging in, working its clout and connections, the show's really on the tip.

"Everyone wants to work with the Roots," explained Rick Krim, VH1 executive vice president of music and talent acquisitions. "Plus, the idea of facing 'a mile of people' on the Parkway, as the Roots' manager, Shawn Gee, describes them, is appealing. And having VH1 on board - reaching into 99 million households - is exciting to artists."

The telecast also is being carried on Viacom sister music-concert channel Palladia, which hits 12 million homes, and online at vh1.com. The local video-production team from 6ABC will "step up its production" for the shared concert images, said Krim, while VH1 will customize with its own host - edgy comedian (and this week, film-concert star) Kevin Hart - and color commentators.

Blowin' Up Good

Gee and Questlove approached VH1 "almost a year ago" with the idea of turning this "different kind of July Fourth celebration into a national event," said the VH1 exec. "We came up with the talent list between us then all went after them. And we went really broad. You've got pop, rock, hip-hop and R&B covered. A nice splitting of male/female headliners - three and three."

Each act gets at least three to five songs onstage, with the versatile Roots backing them all up and doing a few things on their own.

"That makes the pacing good, the logistics easy," noted Krim. "None of the acts has to bring their band, though Mayer will actually be in Philly all week with his group rehearsing for his tour."

Sidelined for a spell with voice problems and a slew of mudslinging gossip (much generated in song by professionally jilted ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift), Mayer will hopefully enjoy some salutary career rehab from his free Philly mini-show. And a nice preview to his own tour commencing two nights later in Milwaukee.

Pungent hip-hop word-slinger J. Cole just dropped a commanding new "Born Sinner" album that opened at No. 2 on the Billboard chart last week, barely behind Kanye West, noted Krim.

Cole now shares management with the Roots and was the first signing to the Roc Nation label fronted by Jay-Z, also heavy into the Philly scene with his "Made in America" show.

The teen contingent (major showgoers) will be lured out by Disney girl Demi Lovato - who's actually flirted professionally with Mayer on recordings past. Will they duet again, here? For sure, Lovato's got a new single "Made in the USA" deemed perfect for the day.

Pop-soul crooner Ne-Yo fills the Michael Jackson vacuum better than most - and has the goods to serve "six hits in a row," testified the VH1 exec, while Grace Potter is "a total rock star we love at the channel. We think she's a massive superstar waiting to happen."

Jill Scott is a no-brainer in this town, of course. The Roots insisted on her participation. And for warm-ups there's Ben Taylor, a young talent with excellent genes - occasionally referencing his dad ( James Taylor) though never his mom ( Carly Simon).

The big pay off

How much are show coordinators paying for this rock-solid lineup? "To be honest, I don't know," said Krim. "The money negotiations are between the producers and the artist. But I don't think anybody is doing this for a huge paycheck. It's about being at a giant event, the exposure."

"It certainly worked for Daryl Hall last summer, when he performed at the July Fourth concert with the Roots, and Queen Latifah ended up joining him on 'Sara Smiles,' " said Hall and Oates manager Jonathan Wolfson. "That concert was streamed live [Livestream.com], and I watched people post comments in real time from literally around the world."

Performing at high-profile events "certainly has helped the brand reach a larger audience and gain us new fans," he said.


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