Do we miss The Roots?
How could we? The Philadelphia hip-hop and so-much-more band have their own annual party coming up at the Festival Pier on June 3 with the 10th annual Roots Picnic. This year’s impressive lineup includes Pharrell, Solange, Lil Wayne, Thundercat, and Michael Kiwanuka. Plus, the group is on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon every weeknight, and Questlove is ever-present on social media.
And yet, July Fourth in Philadelphia doesn’t feel quite the same without them. Every year from 2009 to 2015, the pride of the 215 played a prefireworks set on the stage in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, usually with an array of high-profile guests.
Those days are gone, however. This year’s lineup for the Wawa Welcome America Festival concert was announced Friday morning, and it will be headlined by powerhouse singer Mary J. Blige. Also on tap are the Philly Pops, who will be joined by actress Mandy Gonzalez (currently in the Broadway production of Hamilton) and jazz singer and pianist Tony DeSare. Earlier in the day, Boyz II Men will be honored at Independence Hall.
Is that an exciting lineup? No, though it does sound like it’ll be better than last year's. Since Michael Nutter, the No. 1 Roots fan, often prone to perform his unabashedly geeky version of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” with the band, left the Mayor’s Office and was replaced by Jim Kenney last year, the July Fourth fest has taken on a more low-key tone intended to be both Philly-centric and family-friendly, with fireworks earlier in the evening.
Last year, that meant a super-early start, with music kicking off at 5 p.m. on what turned out to be a soggy, rainy evening that never caught fire, despite the presence of East Oak Lane-raised Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. and rising retro-soul man Leon Bridges, both of whom had finished playing by 7 p.m.
This year’s bill is a step back in the right direction with Blige, the much-beloved Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. She’s particularly popular with an older African American audience, and her connection with her largely female fan base is signaled by the title of her new album, which comes out next Friday: Strength of a Woman. Blige was last in town in November with Maxwell at the Wells Fargo Center, and she’s a familiar face who makes more sense as a headliner in front of a massive audience than Bridges, a talented newcomer who was still unknown to most at last year’s fest.
Boyz II Men are certainly worthy of recognition, and with Gonzalez, Welcome America maintains a Hamilton connection and underscores a message of diversity and inclusion for the City of Brotherly Love (and sisterly affection) that the mayor commendably wants to send at Philadelphia’s Independence Day celebration. Plus, the 9:30 p.m. scheduled start time for the fireworks is better for parents with their kids out late on a Tuesday night.
It certainly can’t be said, however, that this Roots-less approach has the pop appeal it did when the band fronted by Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter anchored the show. In those years, Welcome America brought in John Mayer, Hall and Oates, Nicki Minaj, Aloe Blacc, Miguel, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Sara Bareilles, Jennifer Nettles, Jill Scott, Ed Sheeran, and Sheryl Crow.
Those shows were sometimes unfocused and played out as TV broadcasts, where the viewers at home seemed more important than the people crammed 0nto the Parkway. And one of the big criticisms was that the show got too profane; Minaj was bleeped multiple times on the broadcast in 2014. (Though, as someone who was there that night and not watching on TV, I have to agree with Black Thought, who thought the censor had a quick trigger finger and hit the button more times than Minaj actually used any nasty language.)
But for all their imperfections, those shows also brought star power to the celebration in the city where the nation was founded, and they made Philadelphia the home of the most pop-culture-friendly, and democratic, Fourth of July celebration in the nation, in contrast to more staid affairs in Washington and Boston. The post-Roots approach doesn’t have the same buzz.
Do we miss The Roots? Of course we do.