Mary J. Blige’s motto has been “No More Drama” ever since the Bronx-born singer released an album of that name in 2001.
Somehow, though, struggle continues to find the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, whether it be with the divorce from her manager-husband, Kendu Isaacs, that inspired her return-to-form new album Strength of a Woman, or the raging downpour that delayed her headlining set by 50 minutes at the Wawa Welcome America Fourth of July pre-fireworks concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Tuesday night.
Not that the 46-year-old singer seemed the slightest bit fazed by the passing storm that sent the crowd running for cover shortly after the conclusion of the opening set by Philly hometown heroes Boyz II Men.
Once she hit the stage after an apparently dramatic sojourn across a backstage ocean of mud, with her ponytail of blond braids matching her yellow shades, Blige embarked on her full hour-long set of songs that come through romantic trials and tribulations to a place of hard-fought self-esteem.
So much for the plan to light up the sky with fireworks and have the family-friendly celebration over by 10. Instead, Blige, with the aid of three backup vocalists and a rugged, modern R&B band, was putting a hurt on determined empowerment anthems like “Love Yourself,” “Enough Crying,” and “Real Love.”
A half-dozen songs in, she thanked the audience for hanging in — “Thank y’all for staying in the rain” — and solidified her bond with her largely female fan base that has stretched back for over 25 years, in part by addressing the men in the audience: “I am a woman,” she said. “We feel each other’s pain.” She advised the guys, that “after we’ve been hurt or scorned, we don’t need you to come home jealous when we’re about to get our own.” The show hit an emotional peak in its midpoint with the soul breakdown “I’m Goin’ Down,” which didn’t feature the prettiest singing but packed an emotional wallop with the crowd, which was feeling Blige’s hurt right along with her.
Last year’s Independence Day show honored ’60s and ’70s Sound of Philadelphia architects Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. This year’s Philly musical standard-bearer kept it old school, but a couple of decades less so, with the ’90s vocal group Boyz II Men. The trio of Shawn Stockman, Nathan Morris, and Wanya Morris have had a high-visibility month after having a stretch of South Broad Street near their Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts named after them and starring in a new Geico insurance ad campaign in which they mellifluously sing a list of medication side effects. On the Fourth, they were honored at Independence Hall in the morning, and came out on stage in front of the Art Museum steps crooning one of their ultra-romantic love songs, “On Bended Knee.” Now in their mid-40s, the Boyz are all still in excellent voice and their five-song set of lush love songs topped off by the New Jack Swing of “Motownphilly,” went over extremely well with the open air audience of fans happy to hear pledges of undying devotion as a prelude to Blige’s tale of tormented romance.
The show was broadcast live on NBC10 and streamed on that station’s site as well as that of the Spanish-language network Telemundo. It was staged like a television show, opening at 7 sharp with the 18-piece Philly Pops Big Band, sending a populist message with a sort of soul-jazz version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” and then, after a singalong “Star-Spangled Banner,” the first of several commercial breaks.
The unity-over-division theme continued with jazz singer Tony Desare’s take on the Beatles’ “Come Together.” Next up was singer Mandy Gonzalez, who’s currently starring in the Broadway production of Hamilton, making it two years running that a cast member of that Founding Fathers musical participated in the Philly Independence Day celebration, after East Oak Lane’s Leslie Odom Jr. performed last year.
Gonzalez was a spirited presence, gamely leading the Pops band through a more contemporary repertoire than it’s known for: a duet with Philly American Idol alum Luis Figueroa on Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida,” a horn-happy romp through Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” and a set closer of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”