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Another very good year for the ‘Party with a Purpose’

12th July 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
The Louisiana Weekly


As Frank Sinatra crooned: “It was a very good year,” for the 17th edition of the Essence Music Festival. One might add the word “another” to that familiar sentiment as the “Party with a Purpose” has yet to disappoint during its tenure in New Orleans.

Often a clear stand-out performance defines the annual production. There was the year of Prince, the year(s) of Beyoncé, the year of Aretha, the year of Stevie Wonder, the year of Luther Vandross. This time around that pronouncement remains more debatable. There are those who would vote for Kanye West, particularly for his grand entrance and stage production and others who would give the biggest thumbs up to Jill Scott for her remarkable voice. The return of New Edition complete with Bobby Brown was in that number in crowd appeal along with Charlie Wilson. One could logically conclude that Essence presented a strong line-up across the board.

Perhaps the big question that remains unanswered is who should hold down that all-important final set on the festival’s last night. As most folks who’ve attended Essence Fest over the years know, Maze featuring Frankie Beverley successfully closed down the show from the festival’s inception in 1995 until 2009. In a controversial move, Earth Wind & Fire took over the spot last year but didn’t quite make the grade. There were few doubts that the great Mary J. Blige would be up to the task considering her spectacular and loving performance at Essence 2010. The qualities she displayed last year – talent to burn and the ability to have some fun and embrace and be embraced by the crowd – are some of what it takes to excel as the festival’s final act. Yet her very fine set lacked the necessary punch.

Here’s the deal. It takes more than a solid show to knock-out an audience during that all important time-slot. It takes a certain spirit; a spirit of abandonment that emanates from the stage and forgoes ego in the pursuit of happiness. At 11:30 p.m., the audience, which is generally weary though cheerful, is ready to kick off its shoes, in a sense, and eager to just plain party with its Essence Fest “family.” One more element may come into play here. Maze boasts an almost cult-like following in New Orleans. Therefore an abundance of locals, who know how to get-down and dance, would make up a hefty slice of the crowd and get it rockin’. It’s interesting to consider what other artists could fill the bill.

Back to the beginning of the festival. Initially, it seemed an odd choice to have Boyz II Men open the event at the very early hour of 6:45 p.m. on Friday. Looking down to the floor of the main stage at the start of this renowned group’s set, it was somewhat sad to see the vocalists facing a sea of empty seats. However, it turned out to be a good call as the Superdome began filling up quicker than in previous years due, perhaps, to the festival kicking off with such a quality and popular act.

Upstairs, the Soul Rebels didn’t fare as well in audience size but those in the superlounge exuded a lot of energy. From the attendees’ attitude, one might assume that folks were there to give their homeboys some love and support. Dancing to New Orleans brass band stylings proved to be a great way to gear up for the night ahead. That also proved true for the strong Sunday night set by the sharply-dressed, 10-man strong Hot 8 Brass Band. “Where my homies?” they asked on a tune that was lifted by well-executed arrangements.

To have the ReBirth Brass Band as the warm-up (heat-up) act for George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic was brilliant — talk about one nation under a groove. This stage high in the Dome felt worlds, — no, solar systems — away from the sophistication of the main stage and the smoothness of acts such as Trey Songz. The wizard-cloaked Clinton, minus his multi-colored dreadlocks, prevailed but did not rule his wandering gang of funksters who roamed the stage and ultimately through the audience. Arms were raised and moved in rhythm to P-Funk anthems like “Flashlight” with an “alien” shining a beam down on all. No pyrotechnics required here, just the funk and, oh yeah, the strains of jazz like the classic “My One and Only Love” floating somewhere in the atmosphere.

The Louisiana Superdome itself could be consider the ultimate star of this year’s Essence Music Festival. The renovations provided a real wow factor. Walls on the Plaza level were removed offering a full view of the main stage and the audience below. It gave the area a open feeling and folks moving along the widened corridor didn’t have to miss a beat. The addition and renovation of the ladies’ rooms on this level meant no more standing in long lines that used to grow to some 20 or 30 women. That also helped unclutter the busy hallway. As folks who attended the festival in Houston in 2006 discovered, the Dome’s dual factors of a main stage area and the intimate, club-like superlounges are essential

The other star of Essence Fest is the City of New Orleans. It’s not called the Big Easy for nothing. With the Dome in the heart of downtown, the convenience of walking from one’s hotel to the event, to the French Quarter, to the Convention Center can’t be beat.

Then, of course, adding to the ambiance are New Orleans’ people, a friendly sort who are always eager to chat up and help visitors.

See y’all at Essence Music Festival 2012.

This article originally published in the July 11, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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