Have Peter Nero and the Philly Pops rung in their last "Liberty Bell March" together?
Probably not. At Tuesday night's free concert in front of Independence Hall, there was only harmony, nothing to suggest the conflict between Nero and the board president and acolytes trying to oust him. Judge and mediator have been tapped in the dispute, with resolution possible as early as this month.
Actually, the conductor on the podium for the Sousa march ending the 11th iteration of this Independence Day holiday tradition was Mayor Nutter. Whatever skills Nutter regularly demonstrates at Broad and Market, the musical bully pulpit exposed a leader who hasn't yet discovered the respective roles of downbeat and upbeat. Without pedagogical intervention, a second career seems unlikely.
Nero faced the audience and mimed his usual antics during the march. No one, however, should misinterpret Nero's gift for entertainment and low-key wisecracks as a lack of musical seriousness. Tuesday's concert was more crowded than usual, and, with a poor sound system, many of the thousands carpeting Independence Mall might not have been able to appreciate his gift in full. An alphabet soup of law enforcement was a new distraction this year. Occupy protesters kept on the north side of Market Street, but police presence was heavy all over. It was probably overkill when, after a group of concertgoers sitting on a blanket lit a citronella candle, five police in full riot gear felt the situation demanded full authority to order the flame extinguished.
But up near the stage, the sound was fine. Nero's talent revealed itself in flashes, and it could be jaw-dropping. It's safe to say there's not another musician anywhere with Nero's depth of knowledge in several distinct musical veins. At 78, he has seen a wide swath of American popular music history. Many others have, too, but Nero has internalized a surprising variety of genres. Somehow, in the intervening decades, "Gonna Fly Now" (from Rocky) by Bill Conti has become even more potently suggestive of the '70s, and when Nero followed it with Maurice White's funk-filled "September," written about the same time, Nero became our groovy musical tour guide. At a safe distance now, the irony has grown, but to Nero these are opportunities to show off the band, which plays well for him.
Patriotism was abundant. Thousands waved American flags in the air for "God Bless America." "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor," with Irving Berlin music and the Emma Lazarus words sung by the Voices of the Pops, won more points for sincerity than harmonic or melodic interest. Nero's authority in Gershwin shone through in "Strike Up the Band."
But Nero knew what his fans came for. He took the keyboard in a medley of Duke Ellington tunes, breaking off from the orchestra for vast stretches of euphoric exploration. He dressed "Satin Doll" in an up-tempo and a rich, '60s-ish orchestration.
By the time he got to "Take the A Train," Nero was pumped. With a four-note repeated piano bass line, he managed to evoke both the sound of a chugging train and Beethoven (and, strangely, suggested the same repeated figure in "The 1812 Overture," which was to come). That's Nero's odd genius. Without prejudice, never looking down his nose at a style or dismissing a genre on its face, he takes in a universe of sounds and repeats them back in a tasteful and highly stylized way. So it has been for 33 seasons. The question now: Is it 33 and counting?