Erica Falls performing at 2019's Essence Festival. Photo by Keith Hill

The 25th anniversary edition of Essence Festival was a golden time

Over the last 25 years, Essence Festival nighttime concerts in the Superdome have changed considerably and yet the spirit of the event remains very much the same. Old friends hug in the often laughter-filled hallways and have a good time. And it’s a great place for people watching.

Friday night’s offerings on the main stage were topped by the incredibly talented drummer Sheila E. who was among those on the opening set paying tribute to Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and Prince. Sheila E., who once played with Prince, placed her timbale set front and center on stage and energized the vast arena with her percussive skill and powerful vocals. She ended her portion of the show with a dramatic pounding of the drums and the crash of a stand.

Cheers rang out when Patti LaBelle was unexpectedly introduced and arrived on stage following the tribute to her. The audience insisted that she sing. “I’ll sing for you but I don’t know just what,” she said. Then she gave her all to a portion of her hit “Love, Need and Want You.” Considering her obviously continued appeal, it seemed that she should have had a set of her own. Mixing more old-school artists with the favs of today could have offered more varied programming every night. Hey, Sheila E. should have had her own show too.

PJ Morton packed the superlounge with both an expanded band on stage and a filled to capacity crowd on the floor. The New Orleans keyboardist and vocalist made Essence Fest history as his was the first set, which was at once sophisticated and funky, to be recorded live at the event. He brought out his father, Bishop Paul S. Morton, to join him on “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”

New Orleans artists continued to do themselves proud on Saturday night. More than most, they seem to get a crowd dancing. It could be that they draw many local supporters who are accustomed to getting down to a groove. Notably both vocalist Erica Falls, who came on early, and keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall boasted two of this city’s finest guitarists, June Yamagichi and Derwin “Big D” Perkines, respectively, in their fine bands.

Saturday’s main stage musical highlight was a wildly dressed H.E.R. whose guitar matched the pattern of her multi-colored jumpsuit. Backed by a solid band, H.E.R. played some extremely strong  guitar complete with intricate licks while avoiding the extraneous. She is a real presence as a lyricist and vocalist and killed her show filled with hits like “Focus.”

The anticipation of the arrival of Michelle Obama to the main stage could be felt throughout the arena. She sparkled as she walked out to a standing ovation. Her interview by journalist Gayle King can be seen online.

The very humorous woman comedian who opened the Africa Jam superlounge for Tasmanian vocalist Rayvanny reminded some people how much they missed the comics who used to do stand-up between musical acts on the main stage.  The sentiment was: “Comedians instead of commercials!” as “a word from our sponsors” prevailed and broke up the the flow of the performances and swallowed up the crowd’s energy. Another energy thief was how quickly artists were forced to leave the stage after their shows – whoosh, they’re gone. It deprived them of basking in the audience’s enthusiastic applause and the crowd’s ability to express its pleasure.

Back to Rayvanny… It seemed as if this talented young man’s sole purpose was to have people dance and be happy. Singing in Swahili and English, he radiated warmth (think Kermit Ruffins) as he represented a hip take on his musical African roots.

A sea of white outfits – dresses, shirts, pants, hats, shoes – filed into the Superdome on Sunday night in honor of the appearance of Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, who was the closing act of the night and of the festival. Despite health problems, Beverly was in good voice and he got a whole lot of help from the crowd who sang along with him on favs like “Happy Feelings” and “Joy and Pain.” There were smiles all around when, as has become a tradition, the people in the audience –  from those in the upper tiers to the Dome’s floor – joined together to take part in a massive electric slide line-dance. It’s a golden time…

Click here to see photos from Essence Fest.