Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Getting in the Groove

By Geraldine Wyckoff

JULY 20, 1998:  On Friday and Saturday nights, the most expensive ($55) and the least expensive ($20) tickets were sold out. Festival producers believe that New Orleanians snatched up the cheaper seats, which offered access to all of the acts performing at the "superlounges" as well as upper-level seating in the main arena. Those tickets have always been a real bargain and are perfect for those who enjoy a more intimate musical experience.

New Orleans music fans are a loyal bunch, and the only spots to catch local favorites were the superlounges, Sunday's gospel finale at the Convention Center and Thursday afternoon's kickoff party on Chartres Street. The street party, presented by La Belle Galerie, was an appropriate warm-up for the main event. It gave visitors a real taste of New Orleans with a second-line featuring the Revolution Social Aid & Pleasure Club strutting to the New Birth Brass Band.

Earlier, people were treated to music by the Revealers, free barbecue, beer and soft drinks -- now that's a New Orleans welcome. More local spice would really enhance the festival and offer visitors the opportunity to experience some of this city's rich cultural heritage. I'd love to see the Dome activities begin with a New Orleans revue of Mardi Gras Indians and a second-line of marching clubs and brass bands, perhaps followed by the Neville Brothers.

Just like Jazz Fest, I run from stage to stage a lot, stopping in at the lounges and then heading into the arena. Thursday's lineup kept me upstairs often, catching groups like the Dells singing their huge hit "Oh What a Night." The crowd just ate up the nostalgia provided by the group, which has been together 45 years. The veterans could still hit those notes and then go down in the basement.

And talk about flash -- soul woman Millie Jackson wore some red pants that wrapped her like a shiny Christmas present. Some of her songs were of another color, however -- blue, as in risque, which kept the adult audience open-mouthed. I appreciated Jackson's effort to carry a full band with those essential horns. Too many of the acts on the main stage -- and in much of R&B today -- forego the horn section in favor of electric keyboards and synthesizers. The lack of brass in those acts makes me appreciate the abundance of horns in New Orleans music. Hearing all the trumpets, saxes and trombones in local groups -- like New Birth and Coolbone, Patrick Henry & the Liberation Band and Marva Wright -- made me realize how much I missed hearing them in the arena and how vital they are in our music.

On the main stage, Mary J. Blige's performance was soulful and edgy, a combination that gave "Misty Blue" real life and set her apart from some of what I found to be the less distinctive, overly romantic croonings of some other artists. The crowd loved those dreamy vocalists, but I craved more variety in sound and approach. Brian McKnight, however, brought an appreciated hint of gospel to his "Have I Ever Crossed Your Mind" and showed a broad vocal range.

LL Cool J was not only a change of pace to the programming but also a breath of fresh rapping. "When I was in Queens, I never thought I'd be in front of so many people," said Cool J, obviously appreciating the huge final night crowd. "Stay away from negativity," he warned on "Never Give Up."

Patti LaBelle reigned as queen of Essence Festival, enveloping the audience with her charm and personality. Once again, she invited some men from the audience on stage and had them remove her shoes and massage her feet, much to the delight of the audience. LaBelle was wearing a short black dress with a train that the guys carried as she pranced across the stage. She also danced with each of them and had each sing. Remarkably, they all really belted out the lyrics as the audience howled its approval.

Running up to the superlounges to hear ConFunkShun was worth the trip to dig in on some heavy backbeat topped by the blast of a horn section in this get-down band. Electric sliding to the always-optimistic Frankie Beverly & Maze rounded out the night and the festival.

It is still unknown whether Essence Festival will return in 1999, but with its continued growth and success, it's difficult to imagine organizers moving it to another city at this point. I missed the diversity that superstars like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder brought to the main arena and the straight-ahead jazz acts that were lacking in the superlounges this year. But, as Chubby Checker once sang, going "round and round and up and down" in the Dome was lots of fun, with some fine music along the way.

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