Janet Jackson. Photo by Keith Hill

Essence Festival – Curated Shows Abounded

Trending at Essence Music Festival this year was the abundance of curated performances featuring multiple artists under one “banner.” It’s not surprising that Friday night’s show, under direction of The Roots, the funkiest, tightest, hardest-hitting, knowledgeable band in the land, simply ruled. Black Thought, the free-stylin’ co-founder of the group with drum master Questlove, occasionally remained in the mix as vocalists Erykah Badu and Jill Scott alternately took center stage. The contrast between the two stars added to the set’s excitement. The exuberant Badu, goin’ with her “Rimshot,” was oddly, yet fascinatingly dressed as if she’d run through a second hand shop, grabbing an array of mismatched items including a large-brimmed hat. A chameleon, Badu was visually and vocally too much – in a great way. Particularly in comparison, Scott was a sophisticate though certainly a soulful and energetic one.  There were more surprises to come with the arrival of vocalist Anthony Hamilton and then Kirk Franklin, who brought some more gospel to the main stage that emphasized the spiritual tone set earlier on Snoop Dogg’s show. Most of the Snoop’s performance showcased his new direction as heard on his latest album, Bible of Love and included guests from the gospel world including John P. Kee.

It was such a surprise and a special moment to see our own Ms. Linda Green, the Yak-A-Mein Lady, dressed in red satin, on the Essence Stage. She was there to receive a $5000 check from State Farm to help her in business. Of course, she cried.

Ledisi’s spunky attitude bespoke of her birthplace of New Orleans. That she added some of her quite individualistic scatting hinted at it too. Up in the Superlounge, the Crescent City was well-represented by Mykia Jovan making her Essence debut. A compelling vocalist in a cloud of a dress and backed by a solid band that included a cello, Jovan impressed with her very individual style and original material.

When Queen Latifah sang “California Dreamin’” during her very low-key set, one had to wonder if she knew where she was and what her audience was looking for. She was greatly helped out when she brought out a colorfully attired Missy Elliott and the young go-get-‘em Remy Ma who demanded “Get Ur Freak On.”  Now we’re talkin’. Mary J. Blige closed out the night giving and receiving the love of the now standing crowd.

It’s easy to tell when New Orleans is in the house by the number of people getting their groove on. The large crowd did just that for the superlounge double-bill of DJ Jubilee followed by Big Freedia. Asses were already bouncin’ before Freedia even hit the stage and, of course, backsides were in motion on stage as well once Freedia and the band arrived.

The killer performance of Sunday night was Fantasia, who delivered what Essence audiences love and expect – emotion, attitude and fun. In other words, she was full-on all the time and even offered some old school by honoring Tina Turner with “What’s Love Got To Do with It” and even an odd but enjoyable choice, “Li’l Liza Jane.”

Fantasia’s high-energy proved to be a hard act to follow for superstar and festival closer Janet Jackson. Though visually stunning, her highly-choreographed and sophisticated performance found most folks sitting in their seats rather than up and dancing.

Most regular Essence Fest goers undoubtedly still miss the one love feeling when almost everyone in the Dome – from the floor to the upper tiers — would be doing the electric slide to the music of Maze with Frankie Beverly. The question is who can fill that important last dance spot.

All photos by Keith Hill