NEW ORLEANS --- From harmonious Boyz at the beginning to heavenly Jennifer Hudson in prime time to hot and heavy Usher in the midnight hour, the 17th Essence Music Festival rocked the Super Dome with six decades worth of prime R&B and urban pop. Friday night's kick-off to the three-day run drew a dressed-to-the-nines crowd that paid as much as $125 to hear 15 acts in four intimate "super lounges'' and on the vast main stage. Gospel- and soul-inflected sounds from the 1960s, via Irma Thomas and Mavis Staples, mingled with the tough contemporary R&B of Fantasia, the older-school approach of Charlie Wilson and the hard-edge funk of the local Soul Rebels Brass Band. USA TODAY's Jerry Shriver surveyed the scene from the steamy Big Easy.
Sweet start: Opening the festival in the 6:45 p.m. main stage slot is a daunting task - the Super Dome is vast, the crowds are slow to arrive, and when they do they're picky. But Boyz II Men gamely met the challenge and thrilled their loyalists with an upbeat greatest-hits set. The trio, with two decades of their career and some 60 million in album sales behind them, are dressing middle-aged these days -- gray sweater vest over a tie and white shirt - but their vocal harmonizing still sounded relatively youthful on hits such as On Bended Knee, I'll Make Love To You and A Song for Mama. At one point, Wanya Morris commented that "there must be some Boyz II Men babies in the house,'' noting that while they were recording two decades ago, future parents were otherwise occupied. A wistful End of the Road drove home the point.
Hard charger: American Idol season three winner Fantasia will portray New Orleans' famed gospel pioneer Mahalia Jackson in a biopic later this year, but for her dynamic set she seemed to draw her inspiration more from Tina Turner and James Brown. Hers is not the prettiest of voices, and she's not an all-star dancer. But she projects strength, fierce energy and confidence as she drives home her songs. And she knows how to vary the pace to keep an audience's attention: Upbeat opening number It's All Good gave way to the old-school sounding recent single Collard Greens and Cornbread, and they were followed by a sexy take on Prince's Kiss and an intense, if truncated, version of Bob Marley's No Woman, No Cry. Her empowerment-themed I'm Doin' Me won the biggest ovation.
Soft engagement: Curiously, Jennifer Hudson, who appears to possess the most innate talent of any performer on the bill, had the most difficulty holding the audience's attention. Her voice is a thing of beauty, and she used it to fine effect on numbers such as Where You At? and Angel. But she sang against a neutral-colored curtain, her dancers wore mostly black and white outfits as they flitted in and out, a Weight Watchers plug seemed slightly out of place, and the progression of songs lacked cohesion. Given the lack of production values (especially compared to the Charlie Wilson and Usher extravaganzas that immediately followed), it took all Hudson had to hold the stage. A duet with fellow American Idol alum George Huff on the Jackson 5's I'll Be There and a poignant reading of her own I Remember Me helped immeasurably.
Good-time Charlie: For the third year in a row, former Gap Band leader Charlie Wilson showed that he is perhaps the best true song-and-dance man in R&B today. He may be a 58-year-old recovering crack addict and prostate cancer survivor, but when he half squats with his hands on his knees and does the slow grind with a wicked grin under his pastel-colored hat, hearts tend to melt. His shows are true productions: the energy never lags, the music hardly ever stops, the dancers move with precision and purpose and Charlie projects non-stop cool and satisfaction. Jazz-tinged funk and non-stop party jams like There Goes My Baby, You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Party Train and Charlie, Last Name Wilson kept the crowd on its feet throughout.
Space man: Usher played a well-received show in the city about six months ago but that didn't stop him from reprising many of the sci-fi trappings for the Essence crowd, many of whom come from outside the region. So jaws dropped once again as black curtains dropped from around an area in the center of the Super Dome, smoke billowed and Usher ascended on a crane-driven platform that bore him at least 25 feet above the crowd and slowly delivered him to the stage. Once that stunt was accomplished (he repeated it toward the end of the show during Burn) the sexy, silky singer treated the crowd to a feverish, stylish performance that mixed sci-fi imagery, upscale urban dreamscapes, smart choreography, and edgy but not raunchy sexual fantasies. His shirt came off at the end of Confessions Part II, but only briefly; at other times the wardrobe borrowed from Michael Jackson, Stanley Kowalski, Barry White and those guys in GQ every month. Though the backing music was bombastic at times, Usher's agile vocals held their own on burners such Love in This Club, Lil Freak, U Got It Bad and There Goes My Baby. And in a touching and novel gesture, he didn't sing during his tribute to Michael Jackson, who died two years ago on the eve of Essence. Instead, Usher showcased brilliant dance moves as the band played instrumental versions of Wanna Be Startin' Something, Rock with You and Billie Jean.