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Capturing the soul of Essence Fest 2012

16th July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

The 2012 edition of the Essence Music Festival could be compared to what they often predict about the weather in the month of March. It came in like a lion and went out like a lamb.

The Pointer Sisters were responsible for the initial burst of energy. The three – original members, Anita and Ruth along with the latter’s granddaughter, Sadako Johnson – hitting the main stage in the Superdome donned in orange, yellow and blue shimmy dresses. Perhaps in tribute to New Orleans and its icon, the legendary Allen Toussaint, who penned the Sisters’ first hit, 1973’s “Yes They Can Can,” the trio delivered a kicking version of his tune “Happiness.” Aware of what the audience wanted from them, the Pointer Sisters went back to their heyday of the 1980s for “Slow Hands” and “He’s So Shy.”

The Pointer Sisters at this year’s Essence Fest.

In years past, the opening acts presented at the Dome were often noted, urban contemporary crooners. The start time of the concerts, which begin around 6:30 p.m., could be deemed a little early for such soft, romantic music that feels more in keeping with later hours. So the Pointer Sisters’ enthusiasm worked just right for setting the upbeat mood that continued throughout Friday night.

Amping it up was D’Angelo. Out of the scene for some 12 years, the pre-show buzz was on about his comeback. Dressed in black leather the star strode onto the big stage with huge confidence and just started working with songs delivered rapid-fire without breaks. D’Angelo put the funk on Essence Festival like only Prince had done before. “Good God!” he yelled at one point harkening back to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. With D’Angelo, shades of Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone were in the house.

D’Angelo proved himself to be the consummate musician and he was backed by a band that was up to the task both in talent and punch. His voice holds a certain special quality; that essential soulfulness and power that speak of his roots in the church. His vocals were punctuated by some seering falsetto that hit every time. He strapped on his black, bling-rimmed guitar at the start, roamed the stage like a caged tiger and then sat at the piano to satisfy the audience with his hit, “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” This is a man of many super talents.

Oddly and unfortunately, the crowd, for the most part, didn’t really seem to get it and remained seated during his set. The reaction could be chalked up to disappointed anticipation as many in the audience probably were looking forward to hearing his chart-topper, “Brown Sugar” and waiting for him to take off his shirt as did Trey Songz before him and a move he was noted for in the past. Nostalgia is fine and that worked great for Charlie Wilson, but to really appreciate D’Angelo’s super show a more “here and now” attitude was the way to go. Dig it.

Up in the superlounges, there were several performances that because of the stylistic departures from the norm, it was tempting to look around to make sure one was still at the Essence Fest. Texas guitar-slinger/vocalist, Gary Clark, didn’t even look the part wearing a plaid, flannel shirt. He moved from the straight-up blues of “Bright Lights, Big City” to some ferocious psychedelic departures ala Jimi Hendrix.

Keyboardist Robert Glasper made his reputation in jazz but stepped out to other worldliness for his album Black Radio. He and his talent packed band, the Robert Glasper Experiment, stunned the rapt audience in the superlounge that was wittily hosted by New Orleans’ own poet Chuck Perkins. In this format, Glasper managed to marry raw, even primal, sounds with electronics – a seemingly impossible union. It almost appeared that he, a very funny man and a fast-flying, fluttering keyboard wizard, realized the irony of his music as he peered out at the audience with a quizzical look on his face. Adding to the visual and ethereal impact was the powerful Casey Benjamin, who with a towering, twisted hair-do centered with a cluster of red, emotionally sang through a vocoder and showed his chops on sax. A young woman behind the bar, baffled by the music asked, “What is it?” Jazz. “What’s it for?” Intellectual stimulation and excitement.

Later, on the same stage, The Stylistics totally changed the pace with the group’s old-school style of dress and rhythm and blues. It’s very, very doubtful that the two groups will ever share the same stage again, the transition felt like a soothing shower following an exhilarating day riding some turbulent waves. The Stooges Brass Band brought it home New Orleans-style the next night at the same superlounge. It was a dance party with this ensemble that keeps getting better with strong arrangements that are executed with precision.

Expectations played a part of Sunday night’s appearance of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin just as they did on Friday for D’Angleo. The outcome, unfortunately, wasn’t as favorable. After some microphone trouble, Franklin gave the crowd what they wanted sounding strong on such hits as “Natural Woman.” The orchestra behind the legend was beefed up with local musicians including Bill Summers and Jason Marsalis on percussion and others, the crowd was having fun and Franklin’s vocals were solid and her improvising on “Chain of Fools” was spot on. It was appreciated that she sat at the piano offering up some of those fat, gospel-inspired chords. Things began to decline in energy with the presentation of her, well-deserved, Power Award, her introduction of family in the audience and members of the band and her deliverance of an unfunny, unrelated-to-anything joke. People began walking out of the arena – walking out on Aretha! – as the 90-minute, some dozen song set, minus her anthem “Respect,” went on and on. In the wings, Chaka Khan waited.

The final performance on the final night of the Essence Festival is remembered as being a time of joy touched with a bit of sadness of saying goodbye to old friends. For years, Frankie Beverly and Maze filled the bill inspiring the huge crowd in the Dome, no matter how tired, to get up and dance. Instead, empty seats abounded as Sunday night fizzled. Yet many will remember the 2012 Essence Fest for the energy and generosity of its great stars. They, like the classy Mary J. Blige and the stylistic chameleon Anthony Hamilton, shared their music and love.

This article was originally published in the July 16, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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