It hasn't been a normal week in the Philadelphia music scene, with big name stars like Alicia Keys, Kesha and Haim (who played Union Transfer Wednesday night with DJ Khaled) playing private gigs in more intimate than usual venues around town to entertain Democratic National Convention delegates and muckety mucks into the wee hours.
That strangeness continued Thursday afternoon, when Lady Gaga and Lenny Kravitz played a free show for delegates and whomever could get their hands on tickets that was billed as a "Camden Rising" concert to promote the city across the river's rising fortunes.
The invitstion-only event, which was sponsored by South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross, Susan McCue of the Senate Majority PAC and PhillyVoice, was out of the ordinary in a number of ways: Parking was free, as was rental of beach chairs on the BB&T's spacious lawn, which was about one quarter full. (The under cover seated area inside, which holds 7000 was pretty packed, but ushers were liberal minded about letting people come in for cover when the rain came down.)
Lady Gaga's headlining set was full of welcome surprises, some of them delightful. The biggest star to be booked for convention week was introduced by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who called her "a person of extraordinary light that does not cast any shadow." (Booker, who referred to Camden as "the comeback city of the nation," had been in turn intro'd by Rep. Donald Norcross, who referred to the city's key role in the history of recording, right down the street at the Victor building."
After Booker gave her a bear hug, Gaga, who was dressed in a blue work shirt, black jeans and a brown Fedora that made it appear she was about to enter a Neil Young phase, settled in at the grand piano.
She started with a patriotic protest song - Woody Guthrie's This Land Is You Land," in a sort of folk jazz version that would define the set. Then, sure enough, the changeling talked about meeting Young recently in a recording studio in Harlem, and she sat in a chair, Neil like, and turned in a perfectly respectable "Old Man."
What was this? Gaga goes Americana? (Or Canadiana, in Young's case.) Not quite. Next, she talked at length about her father's home state of New Jersey. He's from Short Hills in Essex County, and there were down the shore trips to the beach. "It was in Atlantic City that I fell in love with jazz music," she said. "The feeling of Sinatra and Tony Bennett. In New Jersey, there's such a culture of immigrants and generations of families that have come over to make something of themselves." The Italian-American born Stefani Germanotta - who recently split from longtime boyfriend Taylor Kinney did a smoky bar take on the Sonny Bono-penned Sinatra-associated saloon song "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)."
Time for her to do her own songs, right? Not yet. First there was Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," lovely but a predictable pop star lounge crooner's move. (It was Michael Jackson's favorite song.) Then, a mind blower: 1960s folkie Phil Och's fervent protest song "The War Is Over," delivered like a passionate history lesson. These really are times of tumult.
Finally, Gaga got to a trio of her own tunes: "Bad Romance," "Born This Way," and the Springsteeny "You & I," all done at the piano with no theatrical foofaraw, each starting out slow but ultimately delivering the arena sized bombast that remains on her musical DNA even as she's remade herself from an outlandish dance music diva to a jazzy chanteuse.
Last song, another cover with a political message of sorts: The Beatles' "Come Together," in a raucous take, with a three man horn section roaring. That seemed to be it, at a little under an hour, a bit shorter than opener Lenny Kravitz had played . The crowd started to exit but the Gaga's Little Monsters wanted more, and she came back for a delicate and sweet (and French) reading of Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose." And with that, the largest musical to-do of DNC week was over, and the delegates were off to board buses, bound across the river to the Wells Fargo Center for Hillary Clinton's big night.