Welcome America! concert lineup puts Philly on the national map for the 4th

Posted: July 03, 2014

THE WAWA Welcome America! Philly 4th of July Jam is billed "the largest free concert in America."

And for this Friday's go-round, with a stellar lineup that includes the Roots, Nicki Minaj, Ed Sheeran, Jennifer Hudson, Aloe Blacc, Ariana Grande and Vicci Martinez, maybe " . . . and coolest" should be added to the tout.

Even Billboard magazine, the music industry bible, praised our sonic spectacular last week in a feature that also took note of music-loving Mayor Michael Nutter's semisecret past as a club DJ. (He was Mix Master Mike, working the Impulse club for nine years, starting at age 19.)

In fact, this here July Jam lineup is so fresh that one of its hippest attractions - the soul/folk/hip-hop fusionaire Blacc - laughingly admitted to the Daily News, "I don't know who some of these other people [on the bill] are! But that's what's great about working a festival like this. You, and I, get exposed to all kinds of people we might not sample otherwise. It's a learning experience, a turn-on."

What will folks learn of Blacc in his short but sweet set backed by the Roots?

That this warmhearted, spirit-lifting, bilingual talent is like Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Sam Cooke, Ruben Blades and Common rolled into one. And, more to the moment, the voice and lyricist behind that enormously popular and weirdly original electro-folk-mashing "Wake Me Up," though the dance anthem's usually credited just to its Swedish producer/DJ, Avicii.

If you've been snoozin' this past year, "Wake Me Up" is the most requested tune ever on Spotify - streamed 250 million times. It's been No. 1 in 22 countries. And watched on YouTube close to 400 million times.

Blacc first emerged as an uplifting, conscious rapper in the duo Emanon, then "reluctantly" was persuaded to start singing by his record label. Good move. The guy has also scored with "The Man" (that genial muscle-flexer quoting Elton John's "Your Song") and the groovin' incantation "I Need a Dollar," popularized worldwide through the HBO series "How To Make It in America."

Best of the bashes

Trust us when we say that Blacc's July Jam showmates here are every bit as happening. In fact, we'd argue that Philly's getting a far more contemporary, edgy bill than either New York or Washington, D.C., will serve to their constituencies.

"Macy's 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular" in New York City, airing 8 to 10 p.m. Friday on NBC10, leans young country with Hunter Hayes and Miranda Lambert, and goes old-school with Lionel Richie. Ariana Grande is also scheduled to pop up on that broadcast, though probably in prerecorded form.

Philadelphia gets her live.

"A Capitol Fourth," 8 to 9:30 p.m. on WHYY-TV 12, promises "patriotic and uplifting" solos from Frankie Valli, Patti LaBelle, Michael McDonald, Phillip Phillips, Jordin Sparks, Sara Evans, Kelli O'Hara, Kendall Schmidt and the Muppets, working out with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Williams.

Your classic public-TV holiday music mix.

Changing of the guard

Philadelphia has been staging July Fourth birthday bashes under the "Welcome America!" banner since the early 1990s. Even longer under other names. Remember the Philadelphia Freedom Festival?

No matter the name - or the weather - these events typically attract 100,000-plus celebrants to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for free music and fireworks to follow. On perfect nights, the city claims attendance as large as 500,000.

Back in the Rendell and Street administration years, the talent booked for the city show by Electric Factory concerts was always respectable but rarely overwhelming, often featuring a patriotic warm-up by the Philly POPS, which this year gets its own show tomorrow at 8 p.m. on the steps of Independence Hall.

For headliners, Welcome America! would serve a well-seasoned, adult-friendly pop, rock or soul talent or two - artists with good brand recognition but often (how do we put this kindly?) past their superstar prime.

To this observer, the talent bookers weren't putting anybody out on the Parkway for free that they could push elsewhere at a ticketed event. Or so it seemed.

Nowadays, a more diverse crew (including Mayor Nutter and City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell) puts in their two cents and presses the cause of musical relevancy to satisfy the younger demographics and sharpen the city's image.

Questlove of the Roots, plus the group's manager, Shawn Gee, and Live Nation's local chief, Geoff Gordon, now share duties as July Jam curators. Blacc allowed he's been on the Roots' radar screen "and friends with Quest" since performing with them on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" in 2011.

And for the last two years, VH1 has really helped heat the talent pool. Welcome America's national media partner is again carrying our big show live (8 to 11 p.m. Friday) on both VH1 and Palladia cable/satellite channels.

The event will be streamed on PhillyJam.VH1.com and the VH1 app, all with a different host - actor/comedian Marlon Wayans - than you'll find on the long-standing local WPVI-TV6 feed.

This year, shared a VH1 source, the music channel helped wrangle Sheeran, Blacc, Hudson and Grande for the Philly fest. How could the artists say no? Our July Fourth event is a great (and easy) giveback to the fans, and a smart promotional vehicle for musicians with summer tours and new albums to flog.

Easy come, easy go

"With the Roots as the house band, you don't have to bring in musicians or arrangements," said Blacc. "The guys just listen to your music and figure the stuff out in their heads. I get to pick three songs, and they'll come up with a fourth, a cover, that works for everybody."

Blacc also gets to shout out about his tour opening for kindred spirit Bruno Mars, which lands July 17 at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden.

We're thinking that same ease and opportunity also coaxed red-hot, redheaded Brit Ed Sheeran on board to give Philly (and the world) a taste of his fine stuff. This folk fusionaire's new and sometimes ratcheted-up second album, "X" (pronounce it "multiply"), is a crafty and commercial charmer.

Produced in part by Pharrell Williams, the set's already No. 1 on iTunes worldwide and quite likely to lift Sheeran outside the sensitive singer-storyteller zone. One track could even break the guy country; others find him rapping like a champ. And not incidentally, Sheeran still has seats to sell for his Sept. 8 Wells Fargo Center show.

Girls talk

July Jam divas Minaj and Hudson need no introduction. Who's Martinez? A pleasant popster who almost went the distance (No. 3) on "The Voice," three years back.

The filly we're thinking will really shine is that former Nickelodeon teen star with the huge, four-octave voice - just-turned-21 Grande. While a strong wind could blow the waif over, Grande more than held her own in vocal might with Aretha Franklin, LaBelle, Jill Scott and Janelle Monae on a recent "Women of Soul" PBS special from the White House.

Hold onto your baseball hats.


Wawa Welcome America! Philly 4th of July Jam and Grand Finale Fireworks, 20th Street to Eakins Oval, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 7 to 11 p.m. Friday, welcomeamerica.com.


Blog: philly.com/GizmoGuy

Online: ph.ly/Tech

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