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Essence Fest – Beyond the Dome’s main stage

26th June 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

It’s only natural that the spotlight shines the brightest on the big name stars like Diana Ross, John Legend and Mary J. Blige, who arrive at Essence Music Festival (June 30-July 2) to perform at night in the main arena of the Superdome. Yet many special aspects of the overall event make it unique in offering so many choices as to how to experience the festival.

First of all, under the roof of the Dome there is not one but five stages. There’s the arena stage plus four small, more intimate, upper-level venues dubbed “superlounges,” located along the Dome’s interior perimeter. These areas are set up like nightclubs with a bar and food vendors at either end of the lounges. The audience-friendly, low-riding stages are in the middle with lots of room in front for dancing.



“I love playing the Super-lounges for sure,” declares pianist/vocalist/composer PJ Morton who kicks off the Essence Superlounge on Friday, leading his group Gumbeaux, an all-New Orleans, six-piece band plus background vocalists. “Sometimes you’re walking around [the Dome] and maybe not even meaning to see the people that are playing in a lounge but you can get such a vibe.”

A frequent Essence attendee, Morton recalls when, years back, he was unexpectedly drawn into a lounge. “I was supposed to see Earth Wind & Fire on the main stage, and me and my friend were walking through a superlounge and Mint Condition was playing. We got stuck in there because they were killing so hard.”

“This will be my first time playing at Essence since being back home so it’s very special,” Morton offers. A native of New Orleans and son of the noted Bishop Paul S. Morton, he returned to the Crescent City in 2015 following years away at college and then residing in Los Angeles to play keyboards with the Grammy-winning, chart-topping group Maroon 5, of which he is still a member.

Morton promises to do a lot of material from his new album, Gumbo (Morton Records), that combines some soulful numbers like “First Began” along with a bit of funk as heard on “Sticking to My Guns,” with drummer Alvin Ford Jr. kicking the beat. “It’s going to be a good time,” Morton eagerly proclaims.

“As a soul singer, Essence Fest was where I could really see the people who were influencing me,” he continues. “I’ve seen everybody in current R&B and soul music that I’ve ever wanted to see at Essence, and Stevie [Wonder] and Prince were two of the big ones.”

As presently shown on the Essence Festival schedule, Morton and Barbados-born, highly influential “Human Beat Box” Doug E. Fresh stand as the only acts performing at the Essence Superlounge on Friday night. Hopefully, this means both will have time to stretch out. The number of acts at each superlounge – Essence, Hot Right Now, Now Playing and For the Love of R&B – vary throughout the three nights. A diverse array of musical styles are offered by well-known artists like vocalist Lalah Hathaway, the highly-successful daughter of Donny Hathaway (Saturday, For the Love of R&B) and Shaggy of “Boombastic” fame (Sunday, Now Playing) as well as more obscure and up-and-coming acts. It’s fun to wander and hear musicians that one might not likely be able to catch elsewhere such Goldlink (Friday, Hot Right Now) who combines Washington D.C.’s go-go with other music from the African diaspora.

Essence’s free daytime activities, which take place throughout the weekend at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, offer empowerment seminars, interviews with artists, films, food, art, live music and more. There will be a Gospel Tribute all day on Sunday and PJ Morton will move from his soul persona displayed in the Dome to his spiritual roots. As the son of gospel luminary, Bishop Paul S. Morton, PJ naturally grew up and participated, often as organist, in services at the Greater St. Stephen Baptist Church. Moving from the gospel music that was ingrained as a youth to rhythm and blues wasn’t a leap for Morton. “Secular music that is about love is in the same spirit as gospel music,” he once explained. “I think it comes from the same place.”

Morton’s program at the Convention Center will pay tribute to the legendary Dr. Emily Cissy Houston. Houston, who will be honored and also perform at the Gospel Tribute, first gained notoriety with the vocal group the Sweet Inspirations that backed up stars like Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley before establishing a dynamic career as a solo artist. She is, of course, the mother of the late, great singer Whitney Houston.

“We will be doing a medley of Cissy Houston’s songs that she covered or was a part of in some form,” says Morton who will be backed by the house band and vocalists. He does say that he and the group will perform “What the World Needs Now,” a tune recorded and made famous by Dionne Warwick, who is Houston’s niece.

Morton has performed at an Essence daytime show before but not in the gospel segment. “I’ve always sat in the audience and enjoyed it, so it’s cool to be playing this year. There’s a lot of good talent.”

That “good talent” includes the great CeCe Winans and New Orleans’ own Bishop Lester Love, the well-known pastor of the City of Love church, recording artist and radio host of “Spreading the Love” show on WBOK radio. Sunday at the Convention Center will be a full day of praising and spreading the Word through music.

In addition to his Friday night performance, Morton, through his record label, Morton Records, will be hosting the Morton Records Day Party on June 30 from 1-4 p.m. at 411 S. Rampart St. The party will feature musical performances by local singer Denisia and 3D Na ‘Tee, in addition to a DJ set by DJ G-Cue.

This article originally published in the June 26, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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