There was no flyover, no megastar headliner, and no celebrity host beyond Keith Lockhart. Whether due to CBS pulling its national television coverage this year (after two decades) or some other reason, Thursday night’s Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade seemed scaled down from previous years. But by performing for an exclusively local audience and selecting a quartet of singers with strong area connections, the Pops made the night’s theme “Boston Strong.” It was a show for Bostonians, by Bostonians.
In fact, with so many acts to spotlight, the focus rarely fell on the Pops themselves. With the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, they played just two songs, including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” before ceding the program to soul singer Ellis Hall. (Even earlier, if the preshow songs by Hall and Ayla Brown count.) Hall made excellent use of the orchestra, adding a richness to a clavinet-funk take on “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” that saw him slapping his hands against the keys by the middle and jumping out of his chair onto his feet by the end.
Having rebranded herself from a pop wannabe to a country hopeful, Brown was less successful with spirited but boilerplate flag-waver “Pride Of America” and the square bombast of “Free.” She was still a better fit than Howie Day of Bangor, Maine, whose sensitive-guy singer/songwriter pop brought a muted energy to an event that thrives on more outward-directed performances.
That wasn’t any sort of problem for Norwell’s Susan Tedeschi, whose powerful, defiant rasp brought electricity to the lush, dramatic blues of “Do I Look Worried?” Unlike the others, who took advantage of the Pops’ symphonic strings, she benefited greatly from the punchy horns, which also worked to the advantage of the funky Philly soul of “Made Up Mind.”
Lockhart and the Pops nabbed attention on their own from time to time. With its soft, sweeping melody, Stephen Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone” was lovely, and the requisite “1812 Overture” was given a boost from the start by the lights dimming (planned) and the wind picking up (unplanned, probably). But their best moment may have been “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” when an older couple at the front of the crowd enchanted everyone within view with some spirited swing dancing, complete with lifts, spins, and full-body dips. When the song finished, Lockhart tipped his figurative hat to them, saluting still more Boston talent where he found it.