Overcoming lineup changes, Pops has its usual blast for the 4th

Pops The U.S. Army Field Band and Soldiers Chorus performing, "America, We're Proud to Serve: The Army Goes Rolling Along; Anchors Aweigh; The U.S. Air Force; Semper Paratus; The Marine's Hymn," during the Boston Pops Fourth of July concert. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)
By Marc Hirsh
Globe Correspondent / July 5, 2011

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July Fourth may be, as WBZ-TV anchor Jack Williams said, “all about patriotic celebration and tradition,’’ but there were times when this year’s Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular was more about improvisation and substitution. Three days ago, headliner Martina McBride did not know she would be performing (in place of an ailing Lionel Richie), and while national television broadcast host Michael Chiklis had more time to prepare, he was still filling the shoes worn by comedian and late-night TV host Craig Ferguson the last four years.

Not that last night lacked much of the usual Pops Independence Day repertoire. “God Bless America’’ alone made three appearances, as did tried-and-true commercial-break fillers like “Hot Honey Rag’’ and “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.’’ And the first half naturally concluded with Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,’’ which remains stirring even before the climactic cannon blasts.

The concert began on an atypically soft note, with Norm Lewis singing the jaunty jazz-operatic “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ ’’ from “Porgy And Bess,’’ backed by a lone piano. Lewis sounded strong, but the curiously low-key kickoff was reinforced by the United States Army Field Band and Soldiers Chorus’s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’’ being the first half-hour’s only other performance.

Staff Sergeant Tracy Labrecque’s strong “Star-Spangled Banner’’ began the show in earnest, with “Go The Distance’’ (sung by Lewis again), and Barry Manilow’s “Let Freedom Ring’’ keeping things that way. Also nice and square was Chiklis’s band, showcasing the actor’s reedy soul tenor, though the soldier’s letter of “ ’Til I Come Home’’ sure was not soul. Nor was the borderline Muzak of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.’’ And unable to out-bombast Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody’’ sounded curiously pastoral at times. But with its loose jazz clarinets, bluesy bass descent, and rolling drums, “42nd Street’’ shone like the stealth big band the Pops can be.

Of the two replacements, Lowell native Chiklis did not have nearly Ferguson’s freewheeling energy, leaning more on local pride than on fizzy humor. McBride, on the other hand, proved her vocal chops on “God Bless America’’ and “Independence Day,’’ even if the song (about domestic violence and retributive murder by arson) was seemingly chosen for the title alone. Depite the last-minute nature of her appearance, the Pops managed to turn staccato strings into a fair approximation of a banjo in the spirited “This One’s For The Girls.’’ It turns out, there’s not much substitute for the Pops.

Marc Hirsh can be reached at


At: Hatch Shell, last night