With four stars on the main stage Friday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and 10 national, international and local acts appearing in four superlounges, opening night of the 19th annual Essence Festival offered too much music for even the most ambitious festival-goers to take in.
The romantically inclined, neo-soul star Maxwell, making his third Essence appearance, headlined the evening with a late show that stretched past the midnight hour. The 40-year-old singer from Brooklyn, N.Y., has often been compared to Prince and Marvin Gaye, but there’s a lot of Al Green in Maxwell, too.
The Green in Maxwell showed up in the singer’s opening number, “Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” a subtly funky slow jam from his 1996 debut album, “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite.”
Later in the show, Maxwell sang Green’s song “Simply Beautiful.” A teasing intro featuring voice and organ added drama to the full band’s eventual entry. “Let’s go!” Maxwell said. “C’mon.”
Maxwell and his group’s epic rendition of British singer-songwriter Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” was a favorite of the Essence crowd. Cheers greeted the song’s opening lines as Maxwell sang them in his impossibly high falsetto tones.
Maxwell’s falsetto, as well as his reedy lower register, also starred in his bedroom ballad “Stop the World.” But performing this intimate song in such a vast space as the Superdome may have been challenging for him.
“This is the biggest place!” Maxwell marveled afterward. “It’s crazy.”
Maxwell, sounding intimidated despite being a famous person himself, also mentioned seeing celebrities he sees on TV in the VIP seats on the Superdome floor closest to the stage.
Preceding Maxwell, Jill Scott, the brassy Grammy winner from Philadelphia, didn’t appear to be intimidated in the least.
“Essence Festival, are you feeling the love tonight?” she asked.
Scott, whose early fame came through her work with the Roots and writing an Erykah Badu hit, “You Got Me,” sang with a powerful backup group including her dynamic trio of male singers and dancers, the Pipes.
Scott’s Essence set ranged from scorching James Brown-style soul to guitar-driven rock to reggae to breezy jazz that showcased her horn players and, fitting the festival’s theme, songs of empowerment.
More empowerment anthems were heard in the Ford Superlounge when British singer, songwriter and pianist Emeli Sandé made her American festival debut at Essence.
Sandé, 26, is a star in her homeland but not so well known in the U.S. Even so, members of an enthusiastic audience made their way to the Ford Superlounge for her show.
When she wasn’t at the piano, she stalked the stage energetically, arms and hands up.
Sandé’s spirit-rousing set included “My Kind of Love,” a song about unflagging devotion that transcends the physical. Seated at the piano, she performed a moving version of “Read All About It, Pt. III,” the same song she sang at the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“I wanna sing, I wanna shout, I wanna scream ’til the words dry out,” Sandé sang. “So put it in all of the papers. I’m not afraid.”
The Ford Superlounge joined in for the “ooh ooh” call-and-response part of the chorus of Sandé’s best-known song to date, the uplifting “Next to Me.” If Sandé’s Essence Festival debut is a sign, she’s destined for success in the U.S.
Rap star and actor LL Cool J’s main-stage performance brought old-school hip-hop to the Superdome house. Cool J did his crunchy, scratching-filled classics “Goin’ Back to Cali” and “Rock the Bells” plus, showing his more romantic side, “I Need Love.”
Brandy, a native of McComb, Miss., who became a music and TV star in her early teens, opened Friday’s music on the Essence main stage. She noted her Mississippi roots and acknowledged her family’s presence in the audience.
Dancing and vamping, Brandy’s Essence debut appearance featured her hits as well as a three-song tribute to her musical inspiration, the late Whitney Houston.
“This woman meant everything to me,” Brandy said before singing Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).”
The Essence Festival continues through Sunday at the Superdome, closing with Beyoncé’s culminating Sunday night performance.