BOSTON — The annual Boston Pops Fourth of July concert lit up the Esplanade Thursday night, as it has for the past 40 years. But the New England tradition felt decidedly different this summer. It was the first sizable public gathering in the city since the Boston Marathon bombings, but even with intensified security measures, people were determined not to let the brutal tragedy undermine the celebration.
“Boston Strong” was on full display at the Hatch Shell. The artists on the bill all had Boston connections. One of them was Ellis Hall, a graduate of Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. Blues singer Susan Tedeschi from Norwell also performed.
There were a lot of “Boston Strong” T-shirts in the crowd. On stage, Boston Pops percussionist Pat Hollenbeck was dressed in a white tuxedo. It was his 31st Fourth of July concert on the Esplanade.
“It feels different for us. It’s poignant, they’re all poignant, this is more poignant,” Hollenbeck said. “It feels like the new normal. Security definitely makes things more difficult for us logistically.”
But Hollenbeck said just being at the concert only a few months after the marathon bombings was more than half the battle.
“Well, this is a triumph for us actually. We win. We’re here. They’re gone,” he said.
Kerri Saucier and her son Cooper of Springfield have seen the Pops on the Fourth for the past 10 years.
“This year I was a little more hesitant, but he didn’t feel at all concerned,” Kerri Saucier said. “I’m really glad we came. It feels like a really important year to be here.”
She said coming to the event shows loyalty.
Garie Johnson traveled all the way from Fordyce, Ark.
“Well, of course, you had our complete sympathy. The whole country was behind Boston,” Johnson said. “You can see the shirt that I’m wearing today. We just want to show our support.”
Bill Curcie, a retired fireman from Long Island, N.Y., came with his daughter Kristen.
“Yeah, I think it’s important that everybody turns out for something like this,” he said.
It was their first Fourth of July in Boston, and Kristen Curcie said the helicopters and security checkpoints took her back.
“It’s just like 9/11. After it happened everyone was nervous. People were like, ‘What should we do?’ But a month later everyone was like, ‘You know what? We can’t let them win. This is what we do: We come together and show your support,’ and this is a perfect way to show your support,” she said.
But the attendance was thinner than years past. Whether it was the heat or jitters, the smaller crowd disappointed National Guard Staff Sgt. James Keelan. He lives in Malden but grew up in Somerville.
“I thought it was going to be bigger,” he said. “I hope that’s not a reflection of the marathon because then they win. If you can ruin the Esplanade or whatever, then you win and it’s not right, you know? People should come out.”
That said, Sgt. Keelan appreciated that the Pops invited injured MBTA officer Richard Donohue to guest conduct a song by one of his favorite bands, the Dropkick Murphys.
“The guy took a round in the neck. Why not let him conduct? He’s making a recovery; his nerve is good. I guess it’s a fitting tribute,” Sgt. Keelan said.
Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart introduced Donohue, who held a crutch in one hand and a conductor’s baton in the other.
“We have special guest with us tonight, a man who is the living embodiment of an everyday hero,” said Lockhart during the introduction. “In the pursuit of the alleged bombers on April 19, he was shot, severed an artery and almost died of blood loss. He has made a remarkable recovery. Please welcome one of the people who makes us Boston Strong, Dick Donohue.”
It was an emotional moment for Pam Carrigan of Winchester.
“We were so upset by what happened to him, and we actually know him because I live in Winchester, and we know the Donohue family, so we were especially concerned, touched and very moved to see him doing so well,” Carrigan said.
And she wasn’t alone. People on the grass hugged and danced throughout that song. And the festive mood continued as the Pops left the stage and fireworks brightened the night sky.