Essence Festival III: Something for All
By Geraldine Wyckoff
July 21, 1997: A young boy's shoulders quivered with laughter, giggling at emcee Monica Robinson's jokes at the Essence Festival finale July 6 in the Convention Center. Sunday's Gospel Music Festival, a mix of light-hearted moments and heartfelt conviction, was a fitting way to end the four-day festival. Robinson is a local talent whose quick wit kept the three-hour show hopping. An effervescent host, she also displayed her vocal prowess when leading Jubilation, a female gospel ensemble from Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Church.
Following three nights of R&B, soul, jazz and blues on the Superdome's main stage and in the superlounges, the free gospel performances topped off a weekend that offered something for everyone. Gleaming in red and white robes, the Gospel Soul Children fell to their knees when the powerful lead vocalist began singing "The Lord's Prayer." This ensemble's sense of drama is always intense.
Evangelist Shirley Caesar took the stage with the announcement that "the show is over, the comedy is over, let's get down to brass tacks." Then the living legend proceeded to work the crowd, dancing, testifying and pacing the stage.
"I need some shouting space," she declared before breaking into "My Answer Will Be Yes, Lord, Yes." Her five background singers were huge talents on their own, but then they'd have to be to take the stage with the likes of this veteran. She closed the festival with fervor.
It just felt right to begin the Essence Festival on Thursday with one of New Orleans' own legends, the crowd-pleasing Irma Thomas. She likes to interact with her audience, so the blues superlounge worked well for that intimate, we're-all-friends vibe. There were lots of locals on hand for Thomas (they're the ones who knew all the words), but it was obvious some were hearing this soul queen for the first time -- and digging it. Also from the local scene was pianist Ellis Marsalis, who teamed up with vocalist Nneena Freelon for a fine set in the jazz superlounge. A former Marsalis student, Freelon is a vocalist to look out for -- she sets even the most familiar tunes free and encourages the musicians to jump in and join her instead of just accompany her vocals.
Also on the lounge level of the Dome Thursday, Clarence Carter got everyone grooving to tunes like "Too Weak to Fight" and "Slip Away." To go from the serious jazz of the wonderful Betty Carter to the fun of Clarence Carter is just one of the fine aspects of the superlounges -- changes of moods, changes of pace.
The main arena is a whole other world. The energy of the audience swirls around you as acts like the O'Jays kick in. The simple stage setting, with gold-draped Grecian columns, changed with the lighting and reflected varied musical styles. Lights spun to the heavy rhythms of the O'Jays and became more subdued as the always classy Gladys Knight took the stage.
Friday night opened with Ashford & Simpson singing classic tunes like "Heaven Must Have Sent You From Above" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" before poetess Maya Angelou joined the duo. A flood of emotion filled the Dome when Angelou walked on stage; her mere presence is inspiring. It was hard to get comfortable with Angelou wearing a headset microphone, dancing, swaying, sometimes even singing and almost rapping. The highlight came when Simpson moved to the piano to play her hit "I'm Every Woman" while Angelou recited her "Phenomenal Woman" -- an Essence Festival moment to be sure.
The big draw for the Fourth of July show was obviously Erykah Badu. She looked stunning in her signature turban, which this night was lime green. Many have compared Badu to the legendary Billie Holiday, but I didn't hear any connection in style. For one, Badu is not a jazz singer but an urban contemporary artist who blends in touches of funk and rap. If I had to find a similarity, it would be in the way Badu creates drama. She looks mournful when she stands with outstretched arms or when she lightly touches her fingertips to her face.
Angela Bofill, on the other hand, is an edgier singer, hitting hard on tunes like "Under the Moon" and "Solar Man." She pushes a song, scatting with force and a sense of rhythm rather than a smooth flow. Returning for the '97 festival, guitarist Mark Whitfield led his combo at the jazz lounge and again had a family affair going on with his two young sons on stage.
Moving over to legendary vocalist Bobby "Blue" Bland's set, my first thought was, "Horns!" You could literally count on one hand how many of the groups performing at the Dome used horns. They made Bland's set all the more fun.
Patti LaBelle closed the Dome on Friday night. This lady sings from her heart and soul and just lets loose. At one point, she was singing while lying on her back, kicking her bare feet in the air. Then she turned over to finish the song on her stomach. When she asked some folks to join her on stage, up came actor Gary Coleman and local gospel man Raymond Myles.
"Honest to God, I don't stay up this late," declared LaBelle, "but I can't rush this." She finally ended on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater is both a visual and vocal knockout. Her two Saturday night sets in the Essence superlounge had some people missing other acts to hear more from the jazz singer. Backed by a solid trio from France, which she presently calls home, Bridgewater began with "Song for My Father" and "Doodlin'" from her Horace Silver tribute album. Bridgewater bends, twists, dances, smiles, sings the melody and scats, really working each tune. She and her pianist/organist had some fun mixing things up and challenging each other. A statuesque woman, Bridgewater interprets tunes as a physical endeavor -- she pulls on it, shaping it like a potter working clay. Enjoying her first set was Essence magazine publisher Susan Taylor.
Right next door at the blues superlounge, soulman Solomon Burke didn't forget to bring along the horns, and lots of them were being manned by New Orleanians. Burke used five saxophones (including Earl Turbinton), three trumpets, three trombones (including Rick Trolsen) and a tuba (Matt Perrine) plus Sammy Berfect on organ and a rhythm section. Sporting sparkling lame outfits for his two sets, Burke thrilled the ladies in the front with red roses while giving a country flair to his performance with tunes like "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Down in the Valley." Jesse Jackson was right in front of all the action, smiling at the foot of the stage.
Burke received a certificate from the city declaring him an honorary citizen. Later, he yelled, "Let's have some fun tonight!" and went into a rock 'n' roll medley of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Lucille." More soul was to follow with Joe Tex's hit "You Had Better Hold On." Though Burke said he didn't want to stop, the house lights went on -- a rather rude way to end two great sets. In fact, all of the superlounges ended earlier this year (at midnight). And though having some of the artists appear for two sets had advantages, it sometimes limited the number of performers appearing at a stage to just two. The superlounge shows also were not staggered well, resulting in quiet times around the Dome. At 10:45 p.m. on Saturday night, there was absolutely no music to be heard.
Frankie Beverly & Maze once again closed the festival at the Dome. In keeping with the new tradition, line dancing broke out all over. What warmth one felt when tens of thousands of people sang together: "Joy and pain/Sunshine and rain."
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