The performers at Thursday’s Fourth of July show in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — officially known as the Wawa Welcome America Concert on the Parkway — have the privilege of playing in front of a crowd estimated to be as large as 200,000.
But in fact, headliners Meghan Trainor and Jennifer Hudson, the 2019 main attractions, were opening acts for a fireworks extravaganza (soundtracked by the U.S. Army Field Band) that’s the real star of the show.
In the four years now since the celebration hasn’t been in the hands of the Philly hip-hop band the Roots, the July Fourth show’s character has changed and the headliners’ job has been simplified. The task of Trainor and Hudson was simply to deliver an agreeably entertaining and upbeat, family-friendly evening to keep the crowd happy enough as they wait in anticipation for explosions in the sky.
By that measure, they each succeeded capably. (The night showed no interest in repeating the pro-immigration political message presented by last year’s Cuban American headliner, Pitbull, a.k.a Mr. Worldwide.)
Trainor, the 25-year-old Nantucket, Mass., native best known for her 2014 body-positive hit “All About the Bass,” was the de facto headliner, putting on a well-paced and professional set that had girls and boys and moms and dads dancing to lightweight hip-hop-flavored pop and more old-fashioned R&B and doo-wop stylings.
She covered Sam Cooke’s “It’s All Right” and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” amid her own bass-heavy cuts like “Me Too,” a song released before the #MeToo movement took off. (It is instead about the time-honored pop-music subject of boasting about one’s excellence.)
Trainor offered fans a sampling of tracks from an upcoming unreleased album; carried off her duet with John Legend, “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” well enough without him; and brought out her father, Gary, to dance on “Dance Like Your Daddy.” How wholesome is that?
And if she has any fear of being labeled a one-hit wonder for the success of “All About the Bass,” which she has since failed to duplicate, she didn’t show it. She chose instead to open with the song, winning the crowd over immediately.
Jennifer Hudson preceded Trainor, but the American Idol and Dreamgirls vet was allotted more stage time and was a more natural fit for the steamy night and the Philadelphia crowd.
The audience responded to old-school R&B and gospel-influenced material from her 10-year solo career, swaying back and forth with miniature American flags in hand on “Spotlight” and joining in call-and-response with the 37-year-old singer on ”Where Ya At.”
And while backed by the Philly POPS BIG band as well as her own musicians and trio of singers — the superb Hudsonettes — she also had some surprises and quiet moments in store.
“My favorite song and my favorite song to sing” turned out to be Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” transformed into more of an over-the-top spiritual than it is in many more introspective covers.
“Gone,” a heartsick song from her 2011 I Remember Me, the first album she recorded after three of her family members were murdered in 2008, was delicately delivered, accompanied by acoustic guitar. And to reach her youngest fans — those who know her only from the 2016 animated children’s movie Sing — she sang two old songs: The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight.”
But of course, Hudson’s set came to a crescendo with “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” the show-stopper from Dreamgirls, which she intro’d by thanking the crowd for “sitting through all that stuff,” since “I know this is what you came for.”
As she displayed her dynamic range, fans were heard to respond with three words she likely hears every time she performs the song: “Sing it, girl!” She followed that with an encore of The Greatest Showman’s “Never Enough,” penned by the hot songwriting team of Justin Paul and Ardmore’s own Benj Pasek.
Before the headlining acts hit the stage and the televised portion of the show began, acts of various genres played at smaller stages up and down the Parkway, ranging from South Jersey rock sister act Nalani & Sarina to the high school dance act Mina’s Power Squad to the U.S. Navy Band Cruisers.