This year's Wawa Welcome America! pre-fireworks July 4 concert on the Ben Franklin Parkway was an early-bird special.
With a goal of getting the explosions in the sky started by 10, the show's biggest names - Hamilton star and Philadelphia native Leslie Odom Jr. and Fort Worth, Texas, retro-soul singer Leon Bridges - had both completed their sets by 6:30 p.m.
Odom, who grew up in East Oak Lane, was billed as both a star of the show and the emcee of the evening, which was the first such soiree not to feature the Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots, favorites of former Mayor Michael Nutter, since 2008.
During that eight-year run, the Fourth of July jam brought in lots of big names, including John Mayer, Miguel, and Nicki Minaj, whose frequently bleeped lyrics in 2014 resulted in calls for the free concert to serve up a more wholesome tone.
That job fell in part to Bridges, a personal favorite of Mayor Kenney, and partly to Odom, who has risen to prominence for his role as Aaron Burr in the hip-hop musical and just released a self-titled debut album of jazz standards and show tunes.
In truth, Odom, 34, was not really the host - those duties were handled by NBC10's Vai Sikahema and Tracy Davidson, reminding the vast crowd waiting between commercial breaks on the Parkway that the Welcome America! culmination is first and foremost a TV show.
In the early parts of the evening, though, Odom's winning personality carried the day, as he was interviewed by the news team about his Philadelphia roots and as he admitted to nerves as his jazz quartet, more suited to a swank cabaret than a mass gathering, played its first outsized show ever.
He needn't have worried: He put over the Bessie Smith blues number "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" ably enough, and he employed his supple voice on a pair of set-list adjustments, with crowd-pleasing covers of Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" and "Me and Mrs. Jones," the great cheating song by Billy Paul, who died in April. The latter was in keeping with the evening's tribute to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who were presented with a Sound of Philadelphia award at Independence Hall on Monday morning.
The exception to the otherwise all-Philly program was Bridges, the dapper 26-year-old Lone Star State crooner whose washing-dishes-to-stardom success story is built on the easy familiarity of his music and the Sam Cooke signifiers that conjure a bygone era. Bridges is not all that dynamic of a singer as nuevo retro soul vocalists go, but his five-song set showed what an accomplished stylist he is, and he put over his closing and most affecting song, "River," with the help of only an acoustic guitar and backup vocalist.
Those two marquee names were followed by a truly old-school segment featuring three Philadelphia International Records 1970s standouts. The only ones to escape falling rain were the first-up Intruders, who brought the crowd to its feet as they offered the sophisticated sentiment of "I'll Always Love Mama" and "Cowboys to Girls" while dressed head to toe in Easter-basket-colored suits of yellow, purple, pink, and green.
With the fireworks awaited, the crowd was wetter for the Blue Notes, who, with leader Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass long gone, still soldier on, with hits like "If You Don't Know Me by Now." The Eddie Levert-led O'Jays then brought the Philly International nostalgia part of the show to a satisfying climax. Their hardworking set began with the paranoid's masterpiece "Backstabbers" and included the good vibes of "Love Train," which culminated in an all-hands-on-deck call-and-response celebration.
Earlier, West Philly rapper Bryshere Y. Gray - aka Yazz the Greatest - was backed by a full band and a pair of red, white, and blue dancers, sampling songs from his in-the-works debut. The 22-year-old actor, Hakeem Lyon on the Fox music soap-opera Empire, came off as a practiced pro on the slick "You're So Beautiful" and "Never Let the Music Die" and went off script to inject partisan politics into the patriotic presentation with his closing remarks: "Pray for Orlando . . . and, hey: Don't vote for Donald Trump."
The family-friendly-focused Philly fete got an early start with one more nonlocal performer: crowd-pleasing rapper Biz Markie playing a DJ set, spinning Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Frankie Beverly & Maze hits for the pre-telecast afternoon crowd.
The Philadelphia vocal group Brotherly Love then opened the show at 5 sharp. For a five-part-harmony "Star-Spangled Banner," they were joined by the North Philly quartet Viva Mas. Brotherly Love followed with the evening's first Sound of Philly taste with a cover of McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" featuring bassist Jimmy Williams, who played on the original 1979 hit.