Charlie Wilson owned the night on the Essence Festival main stage Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But it wasn’t the former Gap Band singer turned solo star who closed the night. Singing group New Edition had that spot, an honor that put them in a can’t-win position.
Wilson, aka Uncle Charlie to his fans and such younger musician admirers as Snoop Lion, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West, was an impossible act to follow.
Regardless of genre, the show that the 2013 BET Lifetime Achievement honoree and his dancers, band and technical crew staged must be one of the most satisfying performances any audience is likely to see anywhere. Wilson starts a European tour immediately after his Essence show in New Orleans. Odds are he’ll knock them out.
Wilson entered dancing in a funky line with his four female dancers as they performed one of his Gap Band classics, “Party Train.” Sticking with the hard funk that made the Gap Band stars in the late ’70s, the troupe hit the Essence crowd again with “Early in the Morning.” Wilson, 60, and his dancers jumped in unison and every musician in his band who played a portable instrument joined them at the front of the stage for a dance party.
There would be more Gap Band songs later, but Wilson doesn’t coast on past glories. He has a thriving, contemporary solo career.
For an artist his age, that’s almost unheard of.
Wilson moved smoothly from the Gap Band to recent solo hits. There was the joyful love song, “You Are,” and love-at-first-sight song, “My Love Is All I Have.” “My Baby,” another song from his 2013 album, “Love Charlie,” revived the funky, driving Gap Band pocket that Wilson helped create with his brothers Ronnie and the late Robert Wilson.
The singer good-naturedly challenged the crowd to be part of his Essence experience. Following his first costume change, into a glittering candy-green suit, he asked in a chastising tone, “Y’all come to party or what?”
Later, Wilson repeated, “What’s my name? What’s my name?” A prelude, of course, to the quiet-storm title track of Wilson’s 2005 solo album, “Charlie, Last Name Wilson.” He proved his slow-jam mastery again with a new song that has a self-explanatory title, “Turn Off the Lights.”
It wasn’t quite Sunday morning yet, but Wilson, the son of an Oklahoma preacher, sat at a small piano to perform “I Believe.” The song is an expression of faith by a man who, as he told his Essence audience, went from rags to riches to rags again and then back to riches.
“God is good,” he said. “Because whenever I ask him for anything, he gives it right to me.”
A mammoth production of another Gap Band hit, “Outstanding,” ensured that Wilson and his group gave the night’s outstanding performance, no matter who preceded or who followed him.
Saturday’s closing main stage act New Edition had nostalgia appeal going for it. Achieving stardom in the early ’80s, the Jackson 5-influenced singing and dancing New Edition set the stage for the non-instrument playing boy groups that followed it, New Kids on the Block, ’N Sync, One Direction and the rest.
All six of New Edition’s classic members, including Bobby Brown and his 1986 replacement, Johnny Gill, took the stage for Essence. But as fun as their catchy pop-R&B hits were 30 years ago, these now middle-aged men, performing teen hits “Candy Girl” and “Popcorn Love” in their matching gray suits, looked a bit weary.
At least the audience didn’t quickly desert New Edition the way festival-goers did during Friday night’s closer Maxwell’s late show.
Trey Songz, a 28-year-old singer and sometimes rapper from Petersburg, Va., impressed his female fans with bedroom songs, fluttering tenor vocals and, several songs into the show, his shirtless torso.
“We got any single ladies out there?” he asked before singing his 2009 hit, “I Need A Girl.”
Saturday’s five Essence main stage acts also included urban music star Keyshia Cole and Solange Knowles, the younger sister of Sunday’s main stage headliner, Beyoncé.