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Essence Fest, a 4th of July tradition for two decades

29th June 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

The big news for New Orleanians about this year’s Essence Festival, which rules the Superdome from Thursday, July 2, to Sunday, July 5, 2015, is the appearance of trombonist/trumpeter/vocalist Troy Andrews, leading his band Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue on the main stage on Sunday, July 5.

It’s the first time a local musician and lifetime resident – born, bred, educated academically and on the streets—headlines in the Dome’s vast arena. Vocalist Ledisi, who was born in the Crescent City and often references some of its roots, has played the stage however she moved to California as a teenager and established her career there. Shorty is all ours.

“Wow – I guess this is a historic moment,” Andrews exclaimed on hearing that he is the first to represent New Orleans as a major act at the festival. Ever humble, Andrews, 29, who many of us have watched evolve musically from a kid on the streets to an internationally renowned, Grammy-nominated artist, views this step-up as an opportunity to not just further his career but to gain greater recognition for this city’s musical legacy. “Hopefully this will open the door for some more locals to go through and showcase what New Orleans has to offer in front of that audience,” he offers.

Andrews, who many around here just call Shorty, stood on the big stage last year sitting in with superstar Prince. He stepped out of the horn section to solo on Prince’s classic, “Sometimes It Snows In April.” A great moment.

It’s somewhat amazing to imagine that Andrews and Orleans Avenue, a group filled primarily with alumni from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), is, in a sense, opening for the nine-time Grammy winner, 50 million album selling artist and Essence Fest superstar staple vocalist Mary J. Blige. She’s the right one to take off on the energy created by Shorty’s next-generation band.

From Essence Festival’s debut in 1995 until 2009, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly successfully stood as the event’s closing Sunday night act. Ever since Maze’s departure as closer, that coveted spot has been in somewhat of a scheduling conundrum. Earth, Wind & Fire did a credible job with its danceable rhythms though the romanticism of Lionel Richie certainly didn’t work to bring the party with the purpose home last year.

Maze takes Essence Fest’s main stage for the first time in six years though this time around, the ever-popular group does so on a Friday rather than Sunday night. With crowd-pleaser, the energetic Charlie Wilson coming on at 9:25 p.m., directly before Maze, Friday may feel more like the festival’s finale than the actual one when hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar takes it out on Sunday. Maze and Wilson are, after all, the kind of old-school acts that know how to play to a crowd that’s looking for a good time at an event that is almost as much a reunion, as it is a musical festival.

The somewhat mysterious vocalist Erykah Badu, who at last year’s show donned an enormous white cowboy hat similar in style to the chapeau often worn by Pharrell Williams, returns on Saturday night at 8:35 p.m. In a way, Badu’s exotic look belied her very personal and intimate relationship with the enormous audience. She offered a jazz-tinged soul set that was enhanced by her humorous and sometimes blue interludes. The night ends powerfully with multiple Grammy-winning, multiple award-winning, dance on his toes, contemporary rhythm and blues superstar Usher.

A couple of local artists step into the newly-named superlounges on Saturday with rapper Mystikal appropriately opening the Art of Hip Hop superlounge at 7:20 p.m. and Tank & the Bangas hitting the Soul of Rhythm & Blues superlounge at 7 p.m.

On Saturday night, bassist, vocalist and musical chameleon Esper­anza Spalding presents Emily’s D+ Evolution, her new, musical theater production and persona at 9:20 p.m. in the Hot Right Now superlounge. Reviews of this unusual show, during which she performs all new material and plays electric bass, have been solid.

The superlounges, great spots with club-like settings for those seeking more intimate musical experiences and good food, have changed monikers through the years. Recently they held more corporate names though this year’s offerings, those named above plus the Now Playing superlounge, seem to try to reflect – and direct one to — certain musical genres. Kind of interesting – think Jazz Fest’s blues tent, jazz tent, gospel tent.

Sunday’s superlounge acts seem especially strong with New Orleans rapper Dee-1, opening the Art of Hip Hop lounge at 7 p.m. Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, one of this city’s musical gems – great musicianship, great vocal harmonies – follows him at 7:55 p.m. (Unfortunately that’s in direct conflict with Trombone Shorty’s 8 p.m. set downstairs.)

Though Grammy-winning keyboardist Robert Glasper has just released a new, acoustic trio album, Covered, for his set at the Now Playing superlounge, he’ll be heading his electric, genre-defying the Robert Glasper Experience. It’s the group that produced the chart topping, revolutionary albums Black Radio and Black Radio 2. The band, which kicks in at 9:35 p.m. includes Glasper, saxophonist and vocoderist Casey Benjamin, bassist Burniss Earl Travis and drummer Mark Colenburg.

So another Fourth of July weekend can be spent going around and around and up and down in the cool of the Superdome. It’s now a New Orleans tradition.

This article originally published in the June 29, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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