On the Parkway, Roots and friends celebrate the Fourth

Celebrating the Fourth, Nicki Minaj performs at the Parkway event.
Celebrating the Fourth, Nicki Minaj performs at the Parkway event. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 06, 2014

The Wawa Welcome America! Jam on the Parkway opened at about 7:30 on a surprisingly soft, clear Friday evening (after a day of lowering clouds), promising a night of celebratory, A-list entertainment.

Three hours later, a danced-out, raspy-throated crowd - at a free concert said to be the largest in the United States - seemed to agree: The Jam truly jammed.

The show began with the Vicci Martinez Band, a five-piece outfit fronted by the 2011 Voice finalist and Cee-Lo Green protégé. Sporting a partially bleached, blond faux hawk, the Tacoma, Wash., singer and guitarist warmed up the crowd with an agreeable-enough five-song set of soul-rockers that peaked with her 2012 single, "Come Along."

She then thanked the still-assembling crowd for letting her warm up the stage, and introduced a closing power ballad by saying, "This is about not wanting things to end."m

Mayor Nutter was a particularly boisterous emcee, describing Philadelphia as "the hottest city with the hottest house band: The Roots are in the house!" He urged the crowd to "scream your lungs out, [but] don't get into any trouble."

Unannounced to the crowd, Sound of Philadelphia soul man Bunny Sigler sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a baby-blue suit before the telecast on cable channels VH1 and Palladia began and locally on 6ABC.

Comic Marlon Wayans hosted the show, at various times referring to the crowd of hundreds of thousands as "like a Wayans family barbecue with a couple of white people sprinkled about," and looking "like the Million Man March got lost."

The Roots then started the show proper, joined by DJ Jazzy Jeff Townes on the wheels of steel. Beginning with a snippet from the Rocky theme, rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter threw himself into the rapid-fire breathless rhyme "Web," from their 2004 album, The Tipping Point. That segued into the smooth groove of the band's biggest hit, "You Got Me," dating to 1999, with guitarist Kirk Douglas taking the lead vocal. And with that, the telecast was into its first commercial break.

Dressed to the nines, with a black derby cocked on one side of his head, singer-rapper Aloe Blacc got to play with the Roots as his backup band. He applied his rich baritone to a trio of hits that you may be familiar with without realizing it. He rapped on the hard-times anthem "I Need a Dollar," familiar from the HBO show How to Make It in America, and sang "Wake Me Up," the 2013 megahit credited to EDM artist Avicii but cowritten by Blacc. And he got the crowd to sing along on his own "The Man," prominently featured in a Beats by Dre headphones TV commercial. He's a skilled entertainer well suited to the Roots (but then, who isn't?).

Jennifer Hudson chose to play with her own sizable backing band rather than the Roots, and - once Wayans got through drooling over her in a between-the-music segment - the slimmed-down singer strutted her stuff in a runway that extended into the crowd. Her big moments were "Spotlight" and her showstopping, powerfully sung Dreamgirls number, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." After that brought down the house, she went.

The trouble with these Roots-hosted shows is that you often don't get enough of the Philadelphia hip-hop group and Tonight Show band. They are surely the hardest-working ensemble in show business on their own.

On Friday, the band made the most of its time - although, in true collaborative spirit, even the solo time featured special guests.

Their second segment was a two-part tour de force. First, they brought out Philadelphia soul singer Bilal for a featured Curtis Mayfield-esque vocal on "The Otherside" from 2011's Undun, which stretched into a Douglas guitar workout. Next came an expertly improvised hip-hop jam in which drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and special guest sampling specialist and expert button-pusher Jeremy Ellis played off one another in thrilling fashion.

All of the acts were well received, but during pauses in the show, the crowd repeatedly let it be known whom they primarily came to see with chants of "Nick-ee! Nick-ee!"

The pneumatic Trinidad and Tobago-born rapper didn't disappoint, with a five-song set that demonstrated her ability to spit hyper-speed rhymes with rat-a-tat precision on "Super Bass" while also displaying a softer pop side on "Pills N Potions."

"Is Philly in the building? Everybody knows I love y'all, I love your energy," Minaj said. "Happy birthday, America!"

She then launched into the sentimental uplift of "Moment 4 Life," whose beats some fool in the crowd decided to punctuate by popping off a supply of fireworks.

After one more winning Roots jam featuring "The Seed 2.0" and a James Brown funk workout, the Jam came to a close with Ed Sheeran, the wildly popular ginger singer-songwriter who hails from the country the United States declared independence from in Philadelphia 238 years ago.

Sheeran, whose new album, X (which stands for multiply), usually plays solo, supported by his own foot-pedal-triggered loops. With the Roots behind him, the crafty songsmith and guitarist benefitted greatly, his sound filled out and muscled up, on songs of his own like "The Lego House," "Sing," and the singalong tearjerker "The A Team," which inspired massive waves of smartphone waving, lighting up the sky in advance of the fireworks explosion to come.

The highlight of Sheeran's show, though, was a loosely funky version of Anthony Hamilton's "Comin' From Where I'm From." Not surprisingly, it proved to be right in the Roots' wheelhouse and, unexpectedly, also in Sheeran's.


ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628 @delucadan

www.inquirer.com/inthemix

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