Here’s the thing about the Essence Festival – even though the Mercedes-Benz Superdome houses plenty of artists from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., there’s music to see virtually every hour of the day all around New Orleans.
The perfect example of this was Day 3 of Essence on Saturday, which got off to an extra-early start around 3 a.m. at the House of Blues, which hosted an all-star jam session of female singers from the festival bill – Liv Warfield, Estelle and Marsha Ambrosius among them – alongside the NPG Hornz and, for a brief moment, Day 2 headliner Prince, who cameoed for a quick guitar solo.
Just a few hours later, at around 11 a.m., thousands of festival attendees had already flocked to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to check out the daytime programming at over a dozen sponsor booths and Empowerment stages, while a select few hundred gathered in Hall I for McDonald’s annual 365 Black Awards. There, even co-host Terrence J marveled at the sleepless resilience of the Essence crowd.
“Didn’t I just see y’all a few minutes ago at the Prince concert?”
As R&B stars like Ledisi, Leela James, Jazmine Sullivan and Kem played musical tribute to community trailblazers like Rev. Al Sharpton and Iyanla Vanzant, Common and SZA were gearing up for another House of Blues show just a few hours later. So basically, if you had the stamina for it, you could have seen 14 straight hours of music in New Orleans on Saturday.
Luckily, festivalgoers arrived well-rested to the Superdome for the third night, which hosted a lively Main Stage bill led by 12-time performer Mary J. Blige and SuperLounges filled with acts both new (Daley, Kourtney Heart) and nostalgic (Tevin Campbell, Doug E. Fresh, 112).
Read on for minute-by-minute highlights from Day 3.
8:42 p.m.: “I hope you all came to get sufficiently ratchet.” Those were Marsha Ambrosius’ first words to the full house who came to see the first of two back-to-back sets she played at the Ford SuperLounge. But with her posh Liverpool accent, and a Sade cover on deck (“Love Is Stronger Than Pride”) to kick off the set, the vibe she began to set was decidedly cool and classy.
8:53 p.m.: Barely two songs in, Ambrosius is already in a chatty mood, and has a few questions for her audience. “How many of y’all believe friends can be lovers?” A few crowd members clap, but their applause is drowned out by playful boos from the many monogamous romantics. “I’m not trying to judge, I’m just saying my situation didn’t work,” Ambrosius says. “It’s also the subject of my album, ‘Friends and Lovers,’ July 15 – plug plug plug.”
8:58 p.m.: With just her second solo album on the way, Ambrosius dug into her Floetry catalog on several occasions – much to the elation of her fans, who were recruited for their own vocals. “I’ve been coming here for 12 years straight. I don’t bring no background singers,” Ambrosius says before kicking off a medley of “Butterflies” and Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It,” which flowed seamlessly from the jazzy ballad. Jackson of course was the common thread between the two songs, having scored an early-aughts hit with his own version of “Butterflies.” “That one’s about a boy I had a crush on the way to McDonald’s, so fine as hell. I was 17 years old,” Ambrosius told the crowd.
9:02 p.m.: “…Then you grow up and things change. My friends and lovers sound like this.” The band struck up the opening chords of “69,” one of Ambrosius’ most playfully explicit songs to date, in which couplets like “F**k me till I forget that I’m black out / throw my back out” are among the tamer ones.
9:07 p.m.: Ambrosius keeps the sass flowing with a rant about an annoying fan (“she’s all up on me on Twitter like ‘add me bitch, add me bitch.’ You don’t even know me like that, bitch”) which serves as a fitting intro to her solo hit “I Hope She Cheats On You (With A Basketball Player).” The song would come off as a comedic novelty if it weren’t so convincingly pained and spiteful. “You are the truth!” shouts one woman, whose conversion to Ambrosius fandom appears to have just taken place.
9:17 p.m.: After taking a dip through a New Orleans brass-y take on “Sexual Healing” it’s time for Ambrosius to close with the hits. First up is “Far Away,” which topped the Adult R&B charts in 2011. Last but not least is current single “Run,” which she dedicates to “Everyone who just wants to get away. Just run towards your dreams.”
10:16 p.m.: It’s not really the Essence Festival until at least one male performer takes off his shirt onstage. And at the Verizon SuperLounge, 112’s Q Parker is up for the task. The ladies reach shriek levels unheard since Prince played “Purple Rain” the night before.
10:24 p.m.: “We like to pay respect to those that came before us,” 112’s lead vocalist Slim says. “And the first group that was really influential for us was Boyz II Men.” True to their word, 112 runs through faithful renditions of three male vocalist group songs – “On Bended Knee,” Jodeci’s “I Can’t Leave You Alone” and New Edition’s “Can You Stand The Rain.”
10:39 p.m.: “How many of y’all remember when we signed to Bad Boy?” Slim asks the crowd. “There was five acts – Faith [Evans], Craig Mack, Total, 112 and Notorious B.I.G. Now Big ain’t here to rock wit us, but we need you to rock out wit us as if he was here. Can you do that for us Essence?” Throughout hooks and key bars from “Sky’s The Limit,” “Juicy,” “Hypnotize,” “All About The Benjamins” and “Mo Money Mo Problems,” the 112 fans prove they can, in fact, rock out for Biggie.
10:50 p.m.: 112 have been careful not to label their last two years of touring again together a proper “reunion,” which is perfect for rooms like the Essence SuperLounges. Dedicated fans get only the hits without those pesky new songs no one knows yet. And luckily, now it’s time for “Peaches & Cream” and “Dance With Me,” complete with the original choreography from the “TRL”-friendly videos, which a group of three fans has apparently committed to memory and performs along with the band from the crowd.
11:06 p.m.: Back on the Main Stage, Jill Scott is checking her freedom. Perennial Essence favorite “Golden” has begun.
11:10 p.m.: Webster’s alert! “It is such a plivilege – plivilege, that’s how you mix a word,” Scott says, correcting her speech. “Pleasure and privilege.”
11:14 p.m.: Many performers at Essence will gladly take you to church, but only Jill Scott can take you to the opera house. With trepidation, she starts to tackle fan favorite “He Loves Me (Lyzel In E Flat),” which climaxes with operatic trills only the classically trained could pull off – and ideally in better health than Scott’s been in lately. “I’ve been sick, I don’t know if I can sing anymore. Let’s see if this happens. Thank you for your energy and support – wish me luck!”
11:16 p.m.: Turns out that luck wasn’t needed – Scott is straight-up murdering those high notes. No wonder she struts off the stage wearing shades and sipping on some cognac three minutes later – she more than earned her place on the Main Stage for a second year in a row.
11:37 p.m.: While the stage is being set for Mary J. Blige, it’s time for a word from our sponsors. Actress and singer Taraji P. Henson is on-hand to introduce a trio of dancers who’ve come to showcase State Farm’s Better Style campaign. Performing to a brief set of crowd favorites, they naturally end with “Poison.”
11:41 p.m.: Essence is the only festival where such blatant marketing from sponsors is not only unscrutinized, it’s expected and welcomed. How else to explain the annual Main Stage appearance from Ronald McDonald and his good friend LeToya Luckett, who should probably find a new gig before the “working at McDonald’s” post-Destiny’s Child jokes start writing themselves.
11:43 p.m.: Up next on the sponsors with celebrities roll call is Coca-Cola, who trots out a big one — ‘90s jingle singer Tyrese, who credits the birth of his entire career to his iconic Coke ad, which like the Essence Festival itself, turned 20 this year. “I was 16 years old when I stepped on that bus. I think the makeup person put a lot of grease on my lips, but we'll talk about that later. Nothing like a little chicken and cola.” Tyrese then introduces a contest winner, Jacoby, who’s been chosen to represent the voice of Coca-Cola for the new generation. But after the young vocalist leaves the stage, it’s clear who the real star still is. “It's been 20 years, I can't believe it. Y’all know black don't crack. I look like I just stepped off that bus.”
11:53 p.m.: “It's so good to be back,” pipes a familiar voice from the stage. “We ain’t done yet.” It’s Mary J. time.
11:54 p.m.: Rising from a platform underneath the stage, Blige emerges as if she’s just stepped off a yacht party in the Hamptons – a white jacket is draped over a short white jumpsuit that would be just as functional for a tennis match as it is now for a night of intensive body-rocking and emotive wails.
11:57 p.m.: Wondering what the “J” stands for? It’s clearly jams, and Mary has an arsenal full of them at this point in her 12-album career. Who else can whip out “The One,” “Just Fine,” “Real Love” and spit a few Biggie verses in under 10 minutes, all with the effortless precision of a Tim Howard block, like it’s a trip to the grocery?
12:08 a.m.: Still more jams – “Reminisce,” “You Bring Me Joy,” “Be Happy” and “Loving You” all pouring out like hot coffee.
12:23 a.m.: I feel a ballad coming on. “Share My World” is up first, but it’s “Take Me As I Am” – an overlooked highlight from 2005’s “The Breakthrough” – where Blige delivers her most impressive work thus far. By the time she’s started growling “nothing at all,” over and over again, the whole Dome is ready to testify.
12:40 a.m.: Though she’s been turning out hit after hit for nearly an hour, and has only 30 minutes left to go, Blige is still a true diva, so an outfit change is afoot. She re-emerges in another sexy, sophisticated jumpsuit, this one a dark teal number with gold buttons and laced sleeves paired with stiletto black boots and a black fedora.
12:46 a.m.: Nearly all of Blige’s albums in her discography are represented tonight, and 2011’s “My Life II” gets a special showcase with “Irreversible,” which Blige works out into a jazzy frenzy, scat singing the bridge, “let it burn, let it burn, let it burn” as if she were playing a club in 1940s Harlem. Brand-new single “Suitcase,” from her just-released “Think Like A Man Too” soundtrack album, soon follows.
12:56 a.m.: “I know for sure that a whole lot of Mary J. Blige fans is in this building right now. You can always tell by this number right here.” That number being “I’m Goin’ Down,” which the arena sings in its entirety for Blige while she adjusts her mic pack. Though she’s been covering the Rose Royce classic for 20 years now, she still gets visibly emotional from the outpouring of love and reverence.
1 a.m.: Having let the fans take the wheel for a minute, Blige is back to show everyone who’s boss one last time with a riveting “No More Drama.” Often hunched over, looking as if someone has just punched her in the gut, Blige is powerfully raw, as if she's found all-new meaning in the song's world-weary lyrics. At one point, she nearly drops to her knees to nail home a chorus but remains on her feet, thanks to the impossibly high stiletto heel. Even at 43, Blige is clearly still in peak form. “I gotta keep fighting for my life, and you do too,” she tells the crowd. “The higher the level, the bigger the devil.”
1:08 a.m.: The Dr. Dre-produced anthem “Family Affair” is technically more of a party starter, but there’s no reason it can’t be repurposed as a set closer, especially when it gives the entire arena something to keep singing on the walk home. “Let’s get crunk ‘cuz Mary’s back,” indeed.