Essence was in full swing Saturday (July 6), as attendance thickened and Friday’s rain took a day off to allow a full day of non-stop singing and dancing. Daytime highlights included McDonald’s Black 365 Awards, which were filmed for their first TV airing on BET later this month. The show featured performances from Jordin Sparks, Estelle, Fiveology, Erica Campbell and a tribute to Gladys Knight that featured Yolanda Adams, Deborah Cox and Angie Stone.
The excitement carried on into the evening at the Superdome, where Solange, Keyshia Cole, Trey Songz, Charlie Wilson and New Edition played the mainstage and acts like Faith Evans, Jody Watley, Leela James, Deep Cotton, Avery Sunshine, Greta Prince, PJ Morton, Bridget Kelly, Bilal and Big Daddy Kane filled the Super Lounges. The lineup was equal parts contemporary and throwback, in typical Essence fashion, with more than enough options to satiate fans of R&B, soul, hip hop, funk and even new-jack swing. Read on for more highlights from Day 2.
The mainstage got off to an early start with a bubbly opening set from Solange, who played her first Essence this year. Having fully come into her own as a solo artist with 2012’s “True” EP, Solange has been touring and playing the festival circuit (South By Southwest, Sweetlife, Coachella, Bonnaroo) this year with a set mostly comprised from that new project. However, the 27-year old took a rare dip into her own catalog Saturday night, playing three selections from 2008’s overlooked “Sol-Angel And The Hadley Street Dreams” — Cee-Lo penned ballad “T.O.N.Y.,” swirling soul track “Sandcastle Disco” and, for the first time on her current tour, Supremes-esque banger “I Decided,” which the band performed at a brisk tempo that recalled Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us.” Clad in a fire-engine red pantsuit and swinging her knee-length braids around like a 90s Lenny Kravitz, Solange was a captivating early highlight. And as she closed by singing ethereal single “Losing You” to a rapidly filling arena, it was hard not to imagine she could soon be playing the mainstage even later in the night at a not-so-distant future Essence — as her sister would be in some 24 hours to close out the festival.
Keyshia Cole is far from a first timer when it comes to the Essence festival, therefore it was surprising to see her set fall short from perfect. The singer strutted on stage to the strings of “Shoulda Let You Go,” and wearing a soft pink cocktail dress oddly paired with a white tank top underneath. While Cole hit every impassioned note of the hits she plucked from her five-album discography to perform, she didn’t deliver the enthusiasm to keep the audience on their feet. After taking a five-minute break to change outfits, Keyshia Cole paid homage to the late Etta James by singing over a snippet of “At Last.” She transitioned into “Love,” her most successful single off her debut album, “The Way It Is,” which left fans with their hands on their hearts. Cole asked fans which song she should perform (“I Remember” or “Trust & Believe”) for she wanted to do both but the set timer on stage was running out. The crowd roared for “Trust & Believe.” With only two minutes on the clock, Keyshia Cole closed her set with a short version of her hit, “Let It Go.”
Faith Evans called forth a packed crowd for her set at the Coca-Cola Super Lounge. Fans vibed as Faith, in a sexy green sequined dress, blazed through classics as “Love Like This” and recent releases as “Tears Of Joy.” The singer surprised the room when she brought out her friend, and now an “R&B Diva” herself, Kelly Price,” for “Soon As I Get Home.”
It’s safe to assess that Trey Songz knows what women want. As like his performance at last year’s Essence festival, the singer had all women in attendance swooning to sweating to his 11-song set, majorily filled with boudoir ballads (“Love Faces, “Neighbors Know My Name”). From the moment Trey Songz walked on stage, dapper in a black tux and grey bow tie, two time clocks started: one on stage for his set and a mental one counting down to when he’d unclothe to shirtless. Songz in concert is not unlike the stripper cop at the bachelorette party — he arrives as one thing and ends the night as something else entirely more hormonal.
There is an apparent cut-off age for those who remember Jody Watley, her previous band Shalamar and her impressive string of late 80s/early 90s hits that helped her win a 1988 Grammy for Best New Artist. Informally polling attendees under the age of 30, it was almost baffling how few knew Watley by name until they remembered songs like “Looking For A New Love” and “Don’t You Want Me.” But at the McDonald’s Super Lounge, Watley bridged any apparent generation gaps with a guns-blazing set that spanned new material (current single “Nightlife,” 2007’s “I Want Your Love”), classics (new jack swing staple “Real Love” and ballad “Friends,” during which she rapped Eric B.’s verse) and a few Shalamar surprises as she was joined at one point by co-vocalist Jeffrey Daniel. Watley has been further expanding her sound and fanbase via a pair of new collaborations with Brooklyn electro-pop duo French Horn Rebellion, which may bring her to a different breed of festival down the road.
The Superdome didn’t fully come alive until Charlie Wilson stepped on stage donning a black sequined suit. (Tame compared to the second outfit change, a rhinestone encrusted teal suit, which lit up in the dark and matched his back-up dancers’ own.) From when uncle Charlie opened his 70-minute set with “Party Train,” the crowd never stopped moving. He took concert-goers down memory lane with classics from his Gap Band days (“You Dropped A Bomb On Me,” “Yearning for Your Love”), solo hits (“There Goes My Baby”) and introduced two new songs (“Turn Off the Lights” and “Love, Charlie”). Behind a translucent piano, which also lit up, Charlie Wilson performed “Love, Charlie” and accompanied it with a familiar speech of his past struggles as a drug addict. (He’s now 18-years sober.) Uncle Charlie closed his set with a long, fulfilling performance of Gap Band hit, “Outstanding,” which took fans out from between the rows and into the aisles to dance.
Essence often features a lot of veteran artists who trot out their hits in exchange for playing new material in hopes to keep fans updated on their repertoire. But New Edition made no such attempt to try out a few current songs on the crowd during their headlining set — from opener “If It Isn’t Love” and all throughout their 90-minute set, the 30 years-and-counting six-piece delivered hit after hit from their catalog as well as the singers’ solo projects. After all, how do you have all three members of Bell Biv Devoe onstage and not sing “Poison”? Outfitted in sleek gray suits and breezing through choreography as if it were 1982 all over again, New Edition proved they can still deliver cohesive, smooth-as-silk performances, having reunited just two years prior at 2011’s Essence. Even Bobby Brown appeared in exceptional form, taking lead on “Candy Girl” and “Mr. Telephone Man” and injecting the songs with layers of soul and depth that those songs’ recorded in the 80s could only hope to conjure. A perennial favorite at Essence, New Edition did not disappoint with their 2013 installment.