After an already action-packed weekend of Superlounge performances, empowerment panels, and headline-grabbing mainstage sets, Essence Music Festival came to a close last night in New Orleans. Like many other festivals, Essence is notorious for headlining sets extending late into the early morning of the next day, but when the artists performing are esteemed members of music’s nobility, you stay put!
Kirk Franklin kicked off the festival’s third and final night, handing the mic off to VH1 star Fantasia before soulful crooner Anthony Hamilton and his phenomenal back-up vocalists transformed the Mercedes Benz Superdome into a refreshing gospel experience. The big-ticket performers – Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin and Queen of Funk Chaka Khan – would soon follow.
As the first woman inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Aretha Franklin has free reign to pretty much do whatever she wants on stage, and did just that. She’d open her mouth, and magic would pour out; graciously bestowing gifts like “(Your Love has Lifted me) Higher and Higher,” “Natural Woman,” “Think,” and “Something He Can Feel,” the 18-time Grammy winner who sang at President Obama’s inauguration was met with a respectful, hyper-attentive audience that contrasted the normal bustling-in-and-out-of-their-seats EMF crowd. Despite the fact that she would at times meander into telling stories and jokes, appropriating an audience-member’s fedora, complaining about the venue’s sound, and acknowledging friends of hers that were in the crowd by asking them to stand, Franklin’s lengthy 90-minute set was any music fan’s dream even that late in the evening.
While Franklin changed her wardrobe from an orange gown to a green and gold frock mid-performance, a presentation was held in her honor, giving Queen of Soul a key to the city of New Orleans by its mayor Mitch Landrieu, a state award by Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, and the Essence Power Award from Essence Communications President, Michelle Ebanks. Representing “entertainment, empowerment and elegance,” Franklin was clearly the ideal choice for this year’s awards, and once the Queen of Soul returned to the EMF stage, she performed crowd favorite “Chain of Fools,” sang from what she called “the book of Simon and Garfunkel,” performing a cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and even found time to pay tribute to the late and legendary Whitney Houston. “She was beautiful, she was warm, she was real,” recounted Franklin of her beloved “Christian sister” as she took to the piano to execute a rendition of Houston’s heart-wrenching “I Will Always Love You.”
Before leaving the stage, Franklin returned to her gospel roots and invited a choir and Reverend Paul Mortin to the stage, the latter of which – father to PJ Mortin, keyboardist for Maroon 5 and newly-signed vocalist for YMCMB – aided her in a glorious duet. Another tribute took place soon after Franklin’s departure, this time carried out by the cast of TV One’s new show R&B Divas; Monifah Carter, Nicci Gilbert, Syleena Johnson (half-sister to Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson), Faith Evans, and Keke Wyatt covered Donna Summer, Vesta Williams, Etta James, Nick Ashford and Whitney Houston, respectively.
Now, at almost most 1am, a thinning-out crowd was taunted with yet another surprise guest, one who we had luckily been made aware of by the lovely Mary J. Blige earlier on during the EMF weekend. Ladies and gentlemen, Chaka Khan!
Emerging from backstage with a red mane and a scalloped sequin blazer, the Queen of Funk looked phenomenal as she began to rock the Superdome with sultry dance moves, rousing air-guitar, and of course, the signature voice that had men and women of all ages on their feet. Unforgettable hits “I Feel For You,” “I’m Every Woman,” “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Tell Me Something Good,” and show-closer “Ain’t Nobody” made the late hour absolutely worth it, even in a venue where, perhaps taking a cue from Aretha before her, Chaka freely made clear that “the sound sucks.” We hope our friends at Essence didn’t take that the wrong way because, let’s face it, the queens are going to do as they please regardless. Get ‘em girls!