By Bill Chenevert
The Wawa Welcome America Festival (May 27 to July 4) is way more than the just the “biggest free concert in America,” as it was touted on the second-floor ballroom of the Independence Visitor Center on Friday afternoon.
The question that’s on many Philadelphians’ minds around this time every year is: “Who will headline on the Parkway?” In the past couple years, there’ve been entertainment choices that have left a handful of conservatives scratching their heads. So this year they’ve done a 180, the theme being a celebration of the Sound of Philadelphia, part of an NBC10/Telemundo 62 bilingual simulcast.
“There’s a vibe and a thread in this city that connects everybody and it’s a special sound. Detroit has their sound but we have the Sound of Philadelphia,” said Mayor Jim Kenney on the Parkway Jam’s plan for the night of July 4.
“In the ‘70s, everyone danced to it, maybe on the Jersey Shore and Wildwood but also in North Philly. That music brought the city and in many ways the country together in a difficult time. This is a celebration, partly, of that genre and the artists that performed those songs are all part of the Philadelphia psyche and we want to pay homage to that time.”
LiveNation was on hand to show that a “high-energy celebration of the Sound of Philadelphia with a tribute to the music icons Gamble & Huff” would include performances from The O’Jays, Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes, The Intruders, Urban Guerilla Orchestra, and five-piece a capella group who’ve sang for President Obama, Brotherly Love.
Naturally, more secrets and announcements have been teased: The Roots were mentioned and another “multi-Grammy-nominated” artist with whom they’re finalizing details. All told, the Parkway festivities boast 20 musical acts and 14 dance performances.
A few other heavy-hitters are set for the night of the Fourth, too: Leslie Odom, Jr., who stars as Aaron Burr in the 16-Tony-nominated Hamilton (a West Philly native with a debut album in June); Yazz the Greatest, who stars on Fox’s Empire, hails from West Philly; and the Philly POPS are bringing VIP guests Allison Blackwell (who has starred in Broadway’s The Lion King) and international opera sensation Justin Hopkins.
The POPS will not only be a part of the Monday super-concert but they’ll hold down a concert on Sunday night (July 3) at Independence Hall aptly titled “Philly POPS on Independence.” The POPS’ president and CEO, Frank Giordano, gushed at the opportunities they get to celebrate the men and women who’ve served our country and our city as police and firemen. The POPS kick off Independence Day celebrations the following morning on the Independence Mall again with patriotic music, inspiring speeches and a celebrity reading of the Declaration of Independence for the Celebration of Freedom Ceremony.
The usual bells and whistles are all here and some of them have improved: the three nights of massive fireworks displays (July 1 and 2 on the Delaware River waterfront and on July 4, they’ll start earlier for families at 10 p.m.); free museum admission to eight museums over 10 days; five movie screenings at various locations ranging from Creed at the Tustin Rec Center in West Philly and Rocky on the Art Museum steps to Finding Nemo at Franklin Square; consumption of a five-ton Wawa hoagie prepared in the Constitution Center and served on June 30th on the Independence Visitor’s Center lawn by Food Network chef, Robert Irvine; Go 4th & Learn will be characterized by a simultaneous book reading held at all 54 Philadelphia Free Libraries and Duffy Books in Homes USA will give out 10,000 free books; and a massive Independence Day Parade will trail through Historic Philadelphia 11 a.m. July 4th with 4,000 marchers.
Fifty-five partner organizations, 35 events and 350 performers have been pulled together by the Welcome America board, which Mayor Kenney chairs, and several times throughout the afternoon it was said that there’s something here all week for “Millennials and boomers alike.”
Several speakers, Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen and President and CEO of Welcome America, Inc., Jeff Guaracino, noted that Philadelphia should “OWN” (with emphasis) Fourth of July and Independence Day celebrations.
It looks like, in its 23rd year, they’re well on their way to doing just that.