2oth Essence Music Festival
2oth Essence Music Festival

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans.  The event was originally planned as a one-time celebration for the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine; however, with its growing success each year they decided to keep things going.

Last year was the most successful to date with an estimated 543,000 visits to its venues.  Those were the highest numbers recorded marking the festival as the largest live event in America bringing in more than $231 million to the New Orleans economy.

A “Now Playing” series was added on Thursday in the Mercedes Benz Superdome.  Tickets were only sold for floor seats and even though some seats and rows remained empty, attendees reported overall the floor and Dome felt full.

Another welcomed change was the dazzling new Essence stage which was a much-needed improvement from last year.

For the first time, the stage has a “thrust” – a short runway – jutting into the first few rows of seats and Thursday’s performers made extensive use of it.

The stage is framed by 10 large video screens, including three staggered horizontal bars directly above the performers. Between acts, those screens – as well as the video “crawl” scrolling across the top of the stage – displayed fan Tweets tagged with the hashtag #essencefest.

Last night Jazmine Sullivan and K. Michelle opened for Trey Songz and Nas who headlined.

One review of Trey Songz was not so favorable reading,

Songz is a veteran of multiple Essence Fests, but he still depends on the same tricks: Namely, his good looks and heartthrob reputation.

His backing band was solid, especially its lead guitarist, who, at Songz’s behest, let loose multiple solos. But Songz still seemed too eager to please, and too aware of his own reputation. A segment in which he calls out and acknowledges audience members went on too long. His songs — even those from his new, sixth studio CD, “Trigga,” which was released July 1 – are either lackluster or lascivious or both. And he has no sense of how to build momentum and drama with ebb and flow.

Late in his set, during “Dive In,” he sat down along the edge of the stage and posed for fan cell phone pictures and videos. He ignored a pair of panties that landed in his lap. Making his way back to the main part of the stage, he called out to the woman who had said she wanted to sleep in his sweaty shirt. Off it came.

And on Nas,

Nas performs at the 20th Essence Music Festival!
Nas performs at the 20th Essence Music Festival!

April marked the 20th anniversary of the release of his acclaimed 1994 debut album. That his milestone coincided with the Essence Festival’s milestone was not lost on him.

Backed by a drummer and a deejay, Nas showcased much of that 20-year-old album, as he did at the Buku Muisc + Art festival earlier this year. In some respects, he is not a typical rapper. He air-violined the intro to one song. A sample of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” ushered in his own “One Mic.”

But he also tapped into the tragedy and triumph inherent in his lyrics. Many in the crowd rapped along with him, having had 20 years to commit “Illmatic” to memory.

Thursday’s final act? Frankie Beverly and Maze – sort of. Maze was the closing act for the first 15 Essence Festivals, and is still missed by some Essence veterans. At the conclusion of Nas’ show, his deejay cued up Maze’s “Before I Let Go.” Smiles spread across faces as folks headed for the exits recognized, and responded to, the familiar melody and “You make me happy” opening line.

Prince returns to the fest for the first time in ten-years and asked concert goers to wear purple tonight at his sold out show.

Fun time indeed!

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