Aretha, Chaka close 2012 Essence Festival
Posted July 9, 2012
The 18th Essence Music Festival wrapped up its three-day run on Sunday by honoring its soulful past, following Friday night's theme of passion and Saturday's embrace of empowerment. Gospel star Kirk Franklin, former American Idol winner Fantasia and Anthony Hamilton warmed up the main stage for highly anticipated appearances by soul queen Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. USA TODAY's Jerry Shriver surveyed the heat in the super-chilled Superdome:
A cheerleader for God: Contemporary gospel singer and choir leader Kirk Franklin opened the show displaying the energy and moves of a man half his 42 years. Wearing a black sport jacket that covered a white T shirt with a giant YSL logo, he leaped. bounced and twirled across the stage while nominally conducting the very self-directed singers and band behind him. He didn't even need to sing much — his speaking voice sounded hoarse — because the audience and singers onstage performed that task admirably on songs such as Imagine Me, Silver and Gold and I Smile. His role was to be a cheerleader for God, and he succeeded. After mildly complaining several times that his performing slot had been halved to 30 minutes, he sat at an electronic keyboard and teases the crowd with snippets of songs "that I was going to do if I had an hour."
Church of soul: Anthony Hamilton adopted several guises during his compact, potent set including hard-charging soul man for Cool, Sucka for You and I'm a Survivor, and smooth, sexy crooner for The Point of It All and Best of Me. But it was his final, set closing persona — manic street preacher — that cemented one of the festival's finest sets. Hamilton doffed his gray jacket, grabbed a tambourine, let loose a Wilson Picket scream and plunged into the gospel rave up Prayin' for You. Singing and shouting like a man possessed, he waded into the audience, stomping and contorting his face into a mask of feral intensity as the band urged him on from the lip of the stage.
A grand entrance:American Idol winner Fantasia was proceeded on the stage by a high school marching band in full uniform which accompanied her on a rousing and brassy It's All Good. As they exited she downshifted the mood into old-school soul with an Aretha-style version of Sam Cooke's Change Is Gonna Come and a sumptuous Collard Greens and Cornbread. She summoned an assistant to take her shoes off for defiant versions of Free Yourself and I'm Doin Me. Fantasia displays none of Mary J. Blige's elegance — she's more in the sweaty and combustive James Brown mode and is not shy about walking into the crowd — but that serves her harder-edged material like Bittersweet well.
Queen's quirks: Aretha Franklin, who had performed at Essence in 1995 and 2005, was typically unpredictable during her much-anticipated return appearance. The 90-minute, 13-song set was intermittently satisfying, lumbering, transcendant, goofy, disorganized and moving. After her full orchestra teased the crowd with instrumental snippets of her hits, she was led onto the stage wearing a bright orange, chiffon, floor-length gown adorned with a cape. Franklin opened with Jackie Wilson's (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, an inspired choice that was marred when her vocals were drowned out by her backup singers and orchestra. From there she offered fairly engaging renditions of early hits, including You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman, Think, The House That Jack Built and a particularly strong I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You). Her voice is a different one now than that all-time great instrument of her youth — not as foreceful or as eager to snare the high notes — but still a thing to behold.
The second half proved confusing for all involved, starting with a mid-concert ceremony during which she was given three awards twice by local dignitaries and Essence officials. When she returned to sing, in a green gown adorned with gold (adding a straw hat along the way), she offered a mish-mash of songs that included a Whitney Houston tribute (I Will Always Love You), a down-and-dirty blues standard (B.B. King's Sweet Sixteen), minor complaints about the air conditioning and the sound mix, Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, and several extended gospel vamps backed by a full gospel choir. Finally, she shuffled offstage, then returned to toss a few stuffed animals to the crowd. After she left for good, a New Orleans brass band appeared on stage and performed a traditional parade song without microphones, completely baffling the fans who had anticipated a promised encore of Respect.
Trouper to the end: With the show running late and Aretha Franklin running unexpected long, Chaka Khan had the unenviable task of taking the stage at around 1 a.m. Monday before a rapidly thinning crowd. But the newly svelte R&B belter acquitted herself well with sturdy versions of hits such as I Feel for You, Sweet Thing, I'm Every Woman and Tell Me Something Good.
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