Essence Music Fest: Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige and D’Angelo Rock New Orleans

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Skip Bolen / WireImage / Getty Images

Soul singer-songwriter D'Angelo performs during Day 1 of the 2012 Essence Music Festival at Louisiana Superdome on July 6, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The biggest name at this weekend’s Essence Music Festival was a big one: Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul performed on the closing night of the four-day event and received the first ever “Power Award” for her contributions to music. The venue was also big: the Superdome. And the annual New Orleans event, organized by Essence magazine (which is owned by Time Inc.) is the nation’s largest African-American music festival.

Franklin gave as big of a performance as befits an event of such size, although it was not always smooth. The legendary artist’s personality came through strong—both sentimental and wacky—and, when it was given the chance to shine (on “I’ve Never Loved a Man,” for example), her voice was, well, Aretha Franklin’s voice, about which there’s not much more to say. But between those moments, the set seemed sprawling and unrehearsed. Only about a dozen songs were performed in about an hour and a half, technical glitches caused slideshows to be distracting, a presentation of various awards and a key to the city of New Orleans was repeated, the sound mix was sometimes garbled and, although she did touch on many of her greatest hits, the absence of “Respect” was either a major oversight in such a set list or—what seems more likely, given the feel of the performance—a casualty of a lack of time. Despite all that, especially when she changed into her second costume of a gold-accented caftan, Franklin’s regal carriage remained undeterred.

(MORE :Essence Music Fest: Will Aretha Franklin Sing Every Song She’s Ever Recorded This Weekend?)

But “biggest” was far from the weekend’s only superlative:

Strangest Comeback: The R&B/soul mystery man D’Angelo (perhaps best known for the 2000 hit “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” and his nudity in the accompanying video) was scheduled to make his big comeback at the Essence Fest. Although the Friday-night headliner was supposed to be playing his first U.S. show in a decade, a surprise appearance at this June’s Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee robbed the Essence Fest of that particular superlative. Still, his set at the Superdome was meant to be a return to the spotlight—and, given that, the singer made some odd choices. He made an abrupt entrance; then, moving between the keyboard and a guitar that resembled a diamond-encrusted scarab beetle (complete with a sparkly “D’Angelo” on the body of the instrument), he played both slow jams and funkier numbers. D’Angelo went most of his set without speaking to the crowd and excluded his more recognizable hits—causing the crowd to spend the majority of his performance waiting for something to happen rather than watching. By the time he left the stage mid-set, chatter in the audience was high. When he returned, he finally sang some of the songs for which he is known, including “Untitled,” and he thanked the audience. The second section of the set was more gratifying and garnered cheers, but still felt underwhelming considering the level of anticipation.

Most Swoon-Worthy: The young crooner Trey Songz, who performed on Friday, charmed the pants off the audience…and the top off himself. Spotting a sign in the crowd that read “I want your shirt,” the singer asked security to bring him the woman holding it so he could give her a hug, a kiss on the cheek and, of course, his shirt. When he asked her name and said it was nice to meet her, the collective knees buckled. It wasn’t long before he went the extra step and ripped his undershirt in half to ask who wanted it. (The three young women who caught the tossed garment were shown on the gigantic Superdome screen grinning giddily but each grasping it as if she hoped the others would let go.) Songz also has another superlative to his name, at least in one fan’s book: Zada Jones-Collins, 38, had come more than 12 hours by car from Texas to Mississippi to Louisiana—with three near-accidents and a flat tire along the way—just to see him perform. “It used to be R. Kelly, but now [Trey Songz] is my number one,” she said.

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Best Cameo: During a Saturday-night performance by sex-fueled R&B star Tank, Tyrese Gibson showed up on stage. Later it became clear why. Tank and Tyrese told reporters that they were promoting their upcoming tour as part of the supergroup TGT—Tyrese, Ginuwine and Tank—and that they had recently signed a huge deal with Atlantic Records as a trio. The tour will be “ladies only,” they said, and they have no plans to pop-ify their music. “Nothing in my bedroom happens that fast,” said Tyrese.

Best Use of Fringe: The Pointer Sisters had the dubious honor of being the first scheduled main-stage performance on Friday evening. Most of their crowd was still finding their seats during the set, leading to low energy throughout for the trio. However, the audience got settled in time for “I’m So Excited” and the closing number “Jump (For My Love).” To accompany what looked like time-tested choreography, they followed their own instructions—in primary-colored neon flapper dresses. With all that fringe flying around, the audience on the floor couldn’t resist jumping either.

Best Recovery: With the Sunday-night schedule running far behind—and the lack of a true holiday weekend for Independence Day this year—the crowd at the Superdome had thinned significantly after Aretha Franklin left the stage. A series of clumsy transitions, a tribute to artists who died in the past year and a couple of words-from-our-sponsors interruptions had even more of the audience out the door, and those who remained were growing increasingly restless. But when Chaka Khan took the stage for a half-hour set that began shortly before 1:00 Monday morning, the restless people were on their feet, dancing rather than heading for the parking lot. Her show was concise and cohesive, and the trio of hits with which she finished the evening—”Tell Me Something Good,” “I’m Every Woman” and “Ain’t Nobody”—ended the festival on a high note.

(MORE: Essence Fest: When Is a Music Festival Not About Music?)

Best Use of the Big Screen: Mary J. Blige, the festival’s Saturday-night headliner, gave the audience nearly two hours of her hits and inspirational story, and the Superdome gave Blige the gift of gigantic screens. Her expressive face dominated the stadium throughout the show, especially when Blige was moved nearly to tears by both the outpourings of love from the packed crowd and by her own story of overcoming odds, which she sprinkled throughout the show. Blige is an Essence Fest regular and it’s easy to see why. Not only does her message of making your own happiness jibe with festival’s focus on empowerment, but her concert was high-energy throughout. She seemed to be having real fun when she wasn’t crying, and the crowd’s singing along was so strong that the artist held the microphone away from herself, out into the audience, for whole verses of several songs. She also used the five giant screens flanking the stage to show her own music videos, and it’s a tribute to her talent that the hit video for “Family Affair” could play on those screens during her live performance and not overshadow the life-size person singing below them.

Worst Performance: The Superdome sound system. Defibrillator-worthy levels of bass overshadowed the vocals at one point or another during nearly every mainstage performance. Ears in the room only got reprieve during Kevin Hart’s stadium-packing comedy set, and that of his opener Na’im Lynn, who started off the comedy section strong with a joke about looking like a Felix the Cat clock. In the “superlounges,” four smaller stages sprinkled throughout the arena, the acts (from local favorites like the Rebirth Brass Band to oldies-but-goodies like the Stylistics) were lucky to have more manageable acoustics, and the performances—while limited in scope by the size of the rooms—benefited from it.