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Essence Music Festival: Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and Usher take on the mainstage

July 3, 2011 |  5:32 pm

Walking into the Superdome for night one of the three-day Essence Music Festival on Friday night it was impossible to overlook the massiveness of the arena, but it’s this very vastness of the New Orleans staple that manages to be beneficial and detrimental to both performers and festival-goers. 

Despite the sweltering heat, doors to the Dome had only opened about 45 minutes before the first act was scheduled to start, much to the chagrin of those in line fanning themselves.

Boyz II Men, who had the misfortune of going on first at 6:45, played to a largely empty house. Though their syrupy harmonies echoed throughout the halls as more fans filed in, it was tough watching the group close with the new jack groove of “Motownphilly” without many faces in the crowd to appreciate it. 

The emptiness made it easy to spot Fantasia, who after kicking off her shoes mid-way through her frenetic set, decided to ditch the stage altogether to walk through the crowd. She had the room to do it, as she strutted through the football-length of floor seats that still had scores of bodies missing from them.

Nightly tickets ranged from affordable ($50) to steep ($1,000) with plenty of price points available. Unlike a lot of music festivals, Essence doesn't offer all-in weekend passes with varying price points. There is an all-access VIP package that includes all three nights of the festival and a bunch of other fancy fixings at an eye-popping $2,999 a pop, without accommodations. So it could very well be the empty seats belong to folks who didn't care for that evening's lineup and have saved their money for headliners Kanye West or Mary J. Blige.

Unlike a festival such as Coachella, fans who wanted to get a taste of what other stages were offering couldn’t just glance over their shoulders. It took commitment, and the desire to want to see the performers taking the stage in the more intimate, standing-room only “superlounges” located deep inside the dome. 

It was a bit of a trek for fans located on the floor of the arena, and it proved to be a test of loyalty, as big name – and younger -- performers such as Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and Usher took to the main stage as R&B institutions like Mavis Staples, Mint Condition, Alexander O'Neal and Cherrelle and Macy Gray were housed in one of the four lounges that dotted the arena. 

Fantasia’s round-the-way style of performing helped set the mark of the evening. The "American Idol" winner is cut from the same hard-performing cloth as Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle. She’s beloved as a no-frills singer and while she could have easily been swallowed up by the scale of the stage, she certainly wasn't. She defiantly growled her hits at the crowd and made time to cover Prince and Bob Marley before stomping through the venue barefoot. She never bothered to return to the stage.

An artist of Jennifer Hudson’s pedigree could have easily benefited from anchoring one of the superlounges, where the crowd would have been closer to her and she could command without the razzle-dazzle of the main stage, something that hindered her performance. Usher took full advantage of main stage.

Performing a somewhat truncated version of his current arena tour, the singer sailed to the stage on a platform to deliver more than an hour and a half of hits, and the kind of footwork that makes him a concert draw. He paid tribute to Michael Jackson "for the last time," with a more humbling dance medley that was less "I'm the heir" and more about paying homage. As the clock ticked past 1:30 a.m. he wondered aloud if the crowd had grown tired. They hadn't, and a few pyro explosions later he launched into "OMG." 


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-- Gerrick D. Kennedy, reporting from New Orleans

Photos: Fantasia (top) and Jennifer Hudson perform on the main stage at the 2011 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. Credit: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press.