Essence Festival 2014 Day 4 Highlights: Lionel Richie, Erykah Badu, Jagged Edge & More
There’s one downside to the fact that Essence’s 20th year was its biggest ever, having added a fourth night of music at the Superdome on Thursday – come Sunday night (July 6), the crowd is finally showing signs of fatigue.
How else to explain the hard work Lionel Richie put into getting his fans on their feet for his closing performance? Because Essence skews older than the typical summer festival, to African-American women (and plenty of their husbands) in their 40s and often higher, you gotta bring the hits if you’re a headliner, and learn not to get too offended when the crowd isn’t quite on the same level. Even Beyonce memorably struggled with her own Sunday-night woes last year, at one point griping to the crowd, “New Orleans, y’all are at a 3 right now, and I’ma need you to get up to a 10.”
Thankfully, Richie was well-equipped to energize a nearly danced-out crowd, even though he was playing to a Superdome that was noticeably less than half its capacity. Making his first Essence appearance since reuniting with the Commodores in 2009, Richie brought his All The Hits, All Night Long tour to New Orleans after a triumphant stop at Bonnaroo, where the turnout was decidedly more multi-generational.
“I’m laughing because I realize we have been together a very, very long time,” Richie said at one point. “When I was in love, you were in love. When I was out of love, you were out of love. When I was young, you were young. And when you were no longer young...I stayed young.” Richie couldn’t resist that last riff, having just celebrated his 65th birthday but managing to look and perform a solid two decades younger.
If the crowd had thinned out a little by Richie’s hits-filled coda, it wasn’t for lack of other musical options. Earlier that afternoon, an all-star tribute to gospel star Yolanda Adams took over the Convention Center, helmed by Adams’ longtime friend and “Sunday Best” co-host Donnie McClurkin. Erica Campbell, Kim Burrell, Michelle Williams, Jonathan McReynolds and Kierra Sheard were among the bold-faced names who appeared throughout the extensive concert, which lasted four hours and finished just an hour before Tamar Braxton kicked things off on the Main Stage at the Superdome. Erykah Badu and Charlie Wilson also took turns sharing their hits with the crowd (with Badu getting a surprise introduction from her friend Dave Chappelle), while the diverse ranks of August Alsina, Day26, Kelly Price, Elle Varner, Jagged Edge and Robert Glasper were among the stars of the Super Lounges.
Read on for more minute-by-minute highlights of Essence Day 4 as the 20th anniversary draws to a close.
7:45 p.m.: Just after Tamar Braxton warmed up the crowd with selections from her hit 2013 album 'Love And War,' the Superdome has a surprise guest: Dave Chappelle, who’s on hand to introduce his friend and recent Radio City Music Hall guest Erykah Badu. “Like this city, I will rise from the ashes,” Chappelle quipped, thanking his many musician pals for helping him sell 60,000 tickets across 10 dates of “what they called my big comeback show.”
8:45 p.m.: After cranking out hit after hit for a full hour, Badu returns for one last encore – fan favorite “Bag Lady.” “Ok, this is your last mothafuckin’ chance to sing – where my tenors at?” she says, taking to the crowd to recruit a few guest vocalists. Handing the mic to one woman, Badu chastises her, “Girl you drunk as hell.” Another woman nails her notes soon after, though. “Yeah, hell yeah.” But a third singer, an off-key baritone male, can’t hang. “That’s it, you fucked it up for everyone.”
9:23 p.m.: Jagged Edge waste zero time in cutting straight to the chase – they open their scheduled 9:25 set at the Verizon Super Lounge two minutes early to kick things off with one of their best-known hits, “Let’s Get Married.” The song starts off in its album slow-jam format, before scratching the vinyl and flipping to the uptempo Jermaine Dupri remix. And no need to call the Reverend – twins Brandon and Brian Casey deftly handle the Run guest rap.
9:28 p.m.: Having given the people what they came for so early in the game, Brian Casey has earned this next plug. “We got a brand-new album coming out September, and this is a brand-new song. It’s called "Hope," so y’all bear with us.” The new single, a midtempo ballad, seems to earn the room’s approval, particularly when it features lines like “When it comes to sex, you know I can turn it up / places you ain’t never been.”
9:32 p.m.: “Can we take y’all back to 1997?” Brian says, setting up Jagged Edge’s first Hot 100 crossover hit “I Gotta Be.” “Lemme tell y’all something, I like rap but I looove R&B. Thank y’all for supporting Jagged Edge, we on our eighth album, much love.”
9:35 p.m.: “I just want you to know that you are really special.” Main Stage mainstay Charlie Wilson is leading the crowd in a sing-along to his verses on Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful,” keeping the funk vibes coming as the band rolls into his solo hit “My Baby.” Needless to say, there are also neon jackets involved.
9:44 p.m.: A relatively modest but no less passionate crowd gathers in the Coca-Cola Super Lounge to head-nod to the soulful acid jazz sounds of Robert Glasper. He’s brought his touring band with him, led by Casey Benjamin, who does impressive double duty on vocoder-ized vocals and on the sax. A pair of groovy covers helps set the mood right off the bat, with Kanye West and Jay Z’s “No Church In The Wild” teeing up Sade’s “Cherish The Day,” which vocalist Lalah Hathaway sings on Glasper’s Grammy-winning “Black Radio.”
9:55 p.m.: An epic piano solo from Glasper is earning rave reviews from the back of the room. “He found the funk, y’all! Robert Glasper found the funk!” cries a fan.
10:15 p.m.: Across the hall in the Ford Super Lounge, Elle Varner is getting ready to debut some brand new material from her upcoming sophomore album, due later this year. “I found yesterday at the Convention Center, I saw a flyer and it said, ‘Elle Varner Fall 2014,'” she said before debuting the emotional new track “Nothing.”
10:29 p.m.: Another ballad “Little Do You Know” is up next. “I’ve been laughing / I’ve been drinking / just enough to cover up the pain / to maintain the illusion,” she sings on the opening verse. If the album’s songs are starting to seem a little heavier than 2012’s “Perfectly Imperfect,” that seems to be the point. “I had to get a few things off my chest, ‘naw mean? Speaking of which, this next song is called ‘Fuck It All.’”
10:35 p.m.: Looks like Varner’s new material isn’t all pain and anguish. She lets loose on “Don’t Wanna Dance,” despite recapturing a moment where she didn’t feel like having fun at all. “I don’t know if y’all know what it’s like when your friends try to get you out to the club and you’re like, ‘Damn, why did I come out?’” she explained of the track.
10:40 p.m.: “Wow, thanks for being my first to hear all these new songs. What a special, special place,” Varner beams. “I suppose I gotsta get a ‘Refill.’” Her 2012 R&B smash ensues.
11:28 p.m.: For anyone starting to fade before Lionel Richie’s festival-closing performance, a little floor-rattling bass was sure to perk them up.
11:36 a.m.: Opening with a trio of Commodores hits, Richie is eager to win over the flagging crowd. “Let’s make this one big karaoke night cuz I realize y’all know the words better than I do.” Now at the piano, it’s time for “Easy” – it is Sunday after all.
11:48 p.m.: Richie is reminiscing with the crowd about all the life experiences they’ve shared together, all too aware of the fact that the vast majority of his audience tonight has lived five decades or more. “It’s a new day, the grass is green and skies are blue and you wanna tell the world just how in love you really are. You wanna grab your CD, your cassette, your 8-track, I’ll even let you download. But who you gonna call? Your man Lionel.” “Stuck On You” is on deck now.
11:55 p.m.: A fair amount of voices are being lifted along with Richie, but not nearly enough butts. “Alright, this next song, I want everybody dancing. I gotta get everybody up.” Richie has made it clear that “Running With The Night” is not a sit-down number – after all, he crashed a wedding in the video. Two guitarists, styled as if they came out of a vintage Def Leppard concert, join him and flip the beat at one point to the groove from Laid Back’s “White Horse.”
12:01 a.m.: There’s wine waiting for Richie back at the piano. “What is this? This is nasty.” The bad taste in his mouth doesn’t prevent Richie from telling the story behind “Three Times A Lady,” however, which was inspired by a toast his father made to his mother. “He said, ‘She’s a great lover, a fine mother and my best friend.’ And I thought, ‘that sounds like a hit song to me.’ The song was a massive hit, and my father spent the rest of his life asking only question: ‘Where’s my money?’”
12:08 a.m.: The crowd is fully on their feet for “You Are The Sun,” and Richie has taken notice. “I haven’t seen dancing like that since ’82!”
12:12 a.m.: Richie gambles his goodwill with a little trolling of the crowd. “So I called my good friend Diana Ross.” Loud applause. “I called her and said I’m playing the Essence Festival, can you come tonight? Can you join me?” Everyone is out of their seats now, screaming. “And she said no.” Audible sighs, a few laughs. We all got punked. “She was barbequeing at the house in Beverly Hills, she couldn’t make it tonight. But since I have all these Diana Rosses in the house, there’s no reason I can’t have all these ladies sing with me.” The arena happily fills in Ross’s vocal on “Endless Love,” with more than a little help on the lyrics from Richie.
12:15 a.m.: A solid block of Commodore jams is keeping the dedicated fans moving, even as the upper rafters of the Superdome are rapidly thinning out. “Fancy Dancer,” “Sweet Love,” “Lady (You Bring Me Up When I’m Down),” “Just To Be Close To You” and “Zoom” are all on the menu.
12:32 a.m.: Shake it down, shake it down, shake it down now. A “Brick House” and “Fire” (Ohio Players) medley is afoot.
12:39 a.m.: “I’m just gonna keep playing, after all it’s the anniversary. So I’m gonna keep playing til I get tired and that’s just how it’s gonna be.” Richie talks a big game, but he’s clearly saved the three biggest hits for last – “Hello,” “All Night Long” and “Dancing On The Ceiling” all come out, sending the loyal, wiped fans home in a satisfied mood on their way to bed. Til next year, New Orleans!