Since the Essence Festival tends to run like a tightly scripted, expensively produced TV show, it’s a mild shock when someone delivers a set that’s a little loose and a little weird. For better or worse, New Edition’s closing set on Saturday night was plenty of both.
Anyone who follows ‘80s R&B or reads tabloids will know the backstory: Formed in Boston as a cute teenage group in the Jackson 5 mold, New Edition grew up fast and fused classic R&B with hip-hop production to own the brief heyday of new jack swing. Lead singer Bobby Brown went solo and did even better, making the best-selling album of 1989 with Don’t Be Cruel. It’s been a long slide since then: Brown’s downhill road has been all over tabloids and TV, and the specifics of his tragic marriage to Whitney Houston will forever be a matter of conjecture. Not so his ongoing substance abuse: Brown was arrested for twice for drunk driving in 2012, and served one day’s worth of a two-month jail sentence this past March.
Brown was back for a 30th anniversary tour with New Edition last year; on a good night he apparently works his bad-boy image for laughs. Saturday wasn’t really one of those nights, though the hour-long set time probably made them cut down on patter. “I promised I’d behave tonight,” Brown announced when he made his entrance, a few songs into the set—and for the most part, he did. But he’d clearly aged about twice as much as his bandmates, with a grizzled voice that stood out uncomfortably in the harmonies, and couldn’t always be bothered to keep up with the choreography. Worse, he has a frequent habit of eyeing women in the audience and making nasty Gene Simmons gestures with his tongue.
During one bit that seemed unscripted, Brown announced that he was tired and would leave the stage, and the others had to coax him to stay. He did leave for a couple songs but returned to sing his ’89 smash “My Prerogatiove,” a great song then and now. The rest of New Edition (including Brown’s original replacement Johnny Gill) were too pro to let this set become a trainwreck, but it tilted on the tracks more than once.
At the other extreme was Charlie Wilson, who’s seen hard times and turned his life around. Wilson scored his first hits with the Gap Band in the ‘70s, making him a relic by Essence standards and the oldest main-stage performer—but the shot of old-school funk seemed welcome, making this the weekend’s first set to get most of the Superdome up and dancing. Wilson seems more than comfortable in his grown-up “Uncle Charlie” persona: At one point he asked for a cheering contest between “old school” and “new school,” then said “I got you beat, ‘cause I’m both!” Though he did all his smoother comeback hits, the set began, ended and peaked with Gap Band numbers—“Party Train” for the opener, a long “Outstanding” for the finale, and “You Dropped a Bomb On Me” for the late-set peak. Toward set’s end he testified about the changes in his life: “I went from rags to riches and back to rags…I was an alcoholic! I was a crack cocaine addict! And now I’m 18 years sober!” This of course brought cheers, but it was Wilson’s mix of solid songs and old-fashioned showmanship that made the night.
Trey Songz has a sweet side and a raunchy side, but he left out some of his R-rated material for Essence’s sake. That meant his set was wall-to-wall ballads after a rocking opener, and while the ballads (especially the new “Sensational”) were fine, I was waiting for him to rev up again. Still, when he removed his shirt after a version of “Neighbors Know My Name” that milked the innuendo for all it was worth, the screams easily beat Maxwell’s from the previous night. Keyshia Cole is a fine singer but her set relied a little too heavily on production; most songs found her singing duets with her pre-recorded self. Since nearly all of her songs are about heartbreak and getting over it, a more personal approach would have helped. This was clear when she called a last-minute addition to the set, “Trust & Believe”, which she did entirely live. It was a strong performance that showed what her set’s flashier bits were missing.
View our Essence Festival 2013 Night #2 Photo Gallery by Elsa Hahne here.