This year's Essence Festival has been short of genuine pyrotechnics but long on musical and personal ones.

mary j. blige photo
Mary J. Blige

After the spectacle of Beyoncé’s high-tech production last year at Essence Festival, it’s refreshing to have a year where the focus has been clearly on the performers. Neither Prince nor Mary J. Blige relied on technology or choreography for visual stimulus, though both had choreography that they could have done without. The Solid Prince Dancers often seemed silly, and Saturday Blige revealed a chink in her performing armor as she gamely but imprecisely danced in crisp, white tennis shoes with two male dancers. Later, the sight of Blige alone with her emotions was a far greater spectacle as she lurched, stomped, and crouched to shape complex, pained emotions into sound. The visual I won’t soon forget is her in thigh-high boots, hunched over and hopping in “No More Drama” as she sang the phrase “No more pain” like an incantation, as if singing it often enough and hard enough would make it so. 

It’s hard to imagine Beyoncé or many other performers in that state of abandon, where beauty, grace and dignity have been left far behind in favor of a purely musical, emotional zone. It’s tempting to armchair psychoanalyze and speculate that Blige’s ability to get to that place has something to do with how she chooses the guys who inspire it, but whatever the case, she like Prince was all the spectacle the night needed.

Essence never fails to offer a full lineup of talented female R&B vocalists, so much so that it’s very clear that good singing is not enough. During his opening set, Tank brought out a woman from Nashville whose voice had so much power and range that a woman next to dropped out of her chair in amazement at one point—and we may never hear from her again. I like Ledisi, but while her set showed off the jazz side of vocal talents, it was short on memorable songs and made her seem more average than she is. Her conceptual stance is a moderate one as the voice of plain-spoken wisdom, which in movie terms means she’s the lead’s friend but not the lead. That stance and encouragement of acceptance is probably easier on her mental and emotional well-being, but the voice of moderation tempers its own ceiling of possibilities.

Jill Scott, on the other hand, was an aspirational figure Saturday night. Her voice can reach operatic places, and her wisdom is more philosophical than Ledisi’s coffee-at-the-kitchen-table homilies. She analyzes a woman’s power (it’s in “them rolling hills”), and she assumes agency for her life. Still, she’s so successfully success-oriented that it’s hard to imagine identifying with her. When Scott spoke of a difficult time Saturday night, she didn’t anatomize it as Mary J. Blige might; instead, she went positive and sang about the person who helped her put herself back together.

Blige, on the other hand, is a survivor. She never seems as centered as Ledisi or as wise as Scott, but she goes through the pain and comes out through will power, the ability to take the emotional scar tissue, and a belief in herself. Not surprisingly, she’s the one of the three that audience identified with. The crowd loved Scott and her broad signifiers of being cultured with style, but they knew Blige, her struggles, and her simple goal—make the pain stop. If they haven't been her, they know people who have. Blige is at her best as a singer when she works through her own mixed emotions in vocal breakdowns, which reveal that nothing is simple and all of it’s deep. Most flights of vocalese convey music but not meaning; for Blige, it represents her at most narratively expressive.

 Notes

- I read industry critic Bob Lefsetz because he’s often right, which is unfortunate because he’s also often smug. While watching Kourtney Heart in a superlounge Saturday, my inner Lefsetz wouldn’t shut up. Four years ago, Heart released “My Boy” and got radio play, YouTube views, and attention, but what’s happening now? Inner Lefsetz said if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving back. I checked her website, which doesn’t appear to have been updated in a year as it still mentions her 2013 appearance at Essence. Inner Lefsetz said leaving dated websites online tells the world you’ve quit whether you have or not, and with so many demands for people’s attention, you might as well have. Everything she sang was fun and well-performed, but after 20 minutes, I wasn’t sure who Kourtney Heart is. Inner Lefsetz said look around. There are female vocalists all over the dome. You’re your brand, and if you can’t separate yourself, people will move to someone they know. Heart mentioned an upcoming album, to which Inner Lefsetz asked what she’s waiting for.

-  The rumor of a possible Prince sighting drew me to see Liv Warfield, one of his backing singers, in her superlounge show. The photo pit was cleared in case he wanted step onstage, but that didn’t happen. Fortunately, she was good in a big voiced, aggressive way. She was joined by Prince’s NPG Horns, whose sax player quoted the Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love” to start a solo. In a bit of stagecraft that Prince would have appreciated, her guitar player teased the opening guitar line of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” during a pause in the horn line that closed her “Embrace Me.” 

“Not yet,” she cried, but in the next pause it happened again, and again she stopped him. At the old school-hungry Essence Festival, Al Green is red meat for the lions, so people fell out when she stopped the tease and played it. It helped that she was joined by Trombone Shorty, who made his third NPG appearance of the weekend, first onstage with Prince, then at Warfield’s afterparty at the House of Blues Friday.

Friday at Essence, including Prince, Nile Rodgers, and Janelle Monae.