Essence Festival 2013
1st July 2013 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Round and round and up and down we go again…” may be the lyrics to Chubby Checker’s golden oldie, “Let’s Twist Again” but they also aptly describe the experience of attending the Essence Music Festival in the Superdome (July 5 – July 7, 2013).
The Dome, which opened its doors in 1975, almost seems like it was built for Essence Festival that kicked off in 1995 as a one-time event in celebration of Essence magazine’s 25th anniversary. The venue offers an arena large enough to present some of the biggest names in music today – think Beyoncé and Jill Scott – while an upper-level provides four intimate settings, the “superlounges,” where New Orleans musicians, up-and-coming acts, quieter artists and many old favorites perform. It’s difficult to imagine Essence Festival without both elements. Following Katrina, when the event was forced to move to Houston for a year, attendees got a taste of what the festival was like minus the Superdome and, of course, held in a city other than New Orleans with its 24/7 attitude and hotels in walking distance to the event.
Essence Festival is unusual in that the more it changes, the more it remains the same. The list of who is “back” this year is extensive including the two above-mentioned superstars (and, hey, why not if you can get ‘em), crowd-favorite Charlie Wilson, vocalist Keyshia Cole, Trey Songz and New Edition.
Grammy-nominated Janell Monae, who gave a memorable performance at her first appearance at Essence in 2009 when she sang in a superlounge, returns but like few before her, she “graduated” to the main stage. That initial night, she performed a tribute to Michael Jackson, who had just recently and so shockingly passed away. She stood alone on a stool and sang a heart-wrenching version of “Smile.” Monae, who has professed that the Godfather of Soul, James Brown was her biggest influence, will bring an edgy sound and look — her signature black and whites and pompadour hair-do — to the arena stage as compared to those offering more romantic strains of contemporary rhythm and blues.
There are some rather surprising absences on the schedule as well. Mary J. Blige, who was always embraced by the Essence crowd, won’t be there sharing her love. The Rebirth Brass Band that played the event for over a decade is also absent. Rebirth gained a lot of new fans from its Essence gigs and the group packed them in the superlounge. It was one of the spots where a line dance would always break out. With Maze featuring Frankie Beverly long gone from the schedule and without Rebirth, the question is who will keep up the Essence Festival line dance tradition.
There’s lots of music to be discovered in the superlounges that get goin’ early on Friday, July 5 at 7:10 with the Atlanta-based duo, Deep Cotton. The pair, Chuck Lightning and Nate “Rocket” Wonder, self-proclaimed “renegades” who are involved with the adventurous Wondaland Arts Society, describe their music as “haunted funk n’ roll.” It is sense of humor with a groove by these two who are also noted producers who have collaborated with fellow Wondalander Janelle Monae.
With good planning, there’s time to circle around the Loge Level of the Dome to catch another compelling act, vocalist Maya Azucena who performs at 7:25 p.m. Azucena wraps many styles – soul/hip hop/R&B – together giving her vocals a unique punch and brings social consciousness to her lyrics. The vocalist has worked with a number of artists and is heard on reggae man Stephen Marley’s Grammy-winning album, Mind Control. Another multi-talented woman performing in the intimacy of a superlounge is vocalist/pianist/violinist Rachelle Ferrell who takes the stage on Sunday at 8:30 pm. This is the perfect setting for her acoustic style.
Only three New Orleans acts are performing in the Superdome’s lounges this year — one each evening. Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs are up first performing on Friday at 7:10 p.m. The funky, hip hoppin’ jazz-wise trumpeter and vocalist knows how to get a crowd involved when he sings out, “Sleep all day, party all night…” from his album (504) 799-8147.
P J Morton, the son of Bishop Paul Morton, might be local, but his reputation goes far beyond these borders as a songwriter, arranger and keyboardist including working with renowned Maroon 5. Morton shows off his great style that tells of his gospel roots on his first album on a major label, New Orleans, that was released in May.
Vocalist/guitarist Mia Borders takes the stage on Sunday night at 7:30. She too is celebrating the release of a new, very personal album, Quarter-Life Crisis. Borders boasts a strong stage presence and rocks blues and soul so she’ll bring a bit of a different sound to the Dome.
In Louisiana, when we talk music festivals, we talk food. So it’s somewhat odd that the food that’s available upstairs in the superlounges is rarely mentioned. Each lounge boasts five or six booths that offer a variety of dishes including local favorites like catfish and gumbo mostly provided by local restaurants or caterers. With the food given so little attention, it wouldn’t be that surprising if some people aren’t even aware of its availability and goodness.
There are many ways to experience the Essence Music Festival. “Round and round and up and down” is a good one.
This article originally published in the July 1, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.