What a difference Mary J. Blige and Saturday night made at the 2017 Essence Festival.
Large swaths of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome were empty for the 23rd Essence Fest's opening night on Friday. But the stadium was much fuller on Saturday. It felt like the Essence Fest of old, albeit with a far snazzier stage that was run far more efficiently.
The center of that stage consisted of a large, revolving disc. As a band performed on one half of the disc — the half in front of a "curtain," which was really a metal grid with lights — technicians were setting up gear for the next band on the backstage half of the disc. When the first band finished, the disc revolved so that the next band's gear moved out front, ready to go.
Thus, the time between the conclusion of Blige's set and the start of Chaka Khan's was a mere six minutes.
Blige curated Saturday's roster to illustrate the theme of her latest album, "Strength of a Woman." She loaded up the main stage with a succession of female artists: Ari Lennox, Monica, Jazmine Sullivan, Jill Scott, herself and Khan.
That bill is solid from top to bottom, but Blige was the big draw. She is a longtime Essence favorite and the biggest act on this year's schedule in terms of ticket sales. Slotting her on Saturday, typically the biggest night of the Essence weekend anyway, attracted what will likely end up being the largest crowd of the festival.
Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish and Regina Hall made a surprise appearance on the main stage to plug their forthcoming movie "Girls Trip" — which was shot in New Orleans — and to introduce the night's main attraction.
Not every performer has the personality and charisma to command a room as large as the Superdome. Charlie Wilson, who delivered several consecutive years of crowd-pleasing performances at Essence before taking this year off, certainly has the necessary charisma. So does Blige.
Following an eruption of pyrotechnic flame on the stage, she emerged in shades, long, tightly braided blonde extensions, glittering custom camouflage pants, stiletto boots and a midriff-baring leather top. In short, she cut a striking figure, especially when she engaged in the sort of awkward, utterly un-self-conscious dancing with which her fans can relate.
"I'm Goin' Down," as always, inspired a mass singalong on the swinging chorus.
And as with almost every Mary J. Blige show, she worked herself into a frenzy for "No More Drama," her anthem of resolve in which she vows to put behind her the troubles of the past.
Every time she sings "No More Drama," those old emotions seem to bubble up once again. From a crouching position, she hopped up and down on her platform stiletto boots, then ended up sprawled on her back. It came across as a personal, emotional exorcism conducted in public.
Now that many in the building were on their feet and on her side, Blige cruised through the fan favorites "Just Fine" and "Family Affair." Her performance reiterated that she is the closest thing Essence has to a reigning queen.
Within minutes, Khan's band was up and running. A vision in gold, Khan seemed to luxuriate in her own fabulousness. She wasn't allotted a full set, though; her job was to serve up a quick, 30-minute nightcap on the evening's festivities.
She got right to work, trotting out her signature "Tell Me Something Good" as her second song; it inspired one of her guitarists to uncork an unhinged, raw, just-go-for-it solo. "Sweet Thing" followed immediately. Khan smiled and sang high and hard, letting her backing vocalists fill in when she dropped out.
"Ain't Nobody" culminated the whole night in a big way: Blige, Scott, Sullivan and Lennox returned to the stage to join Khan. They took turns scatting and showing off their vocal gymnastics.
The point was to demonstrate the individual and collective strength of these women, and by extension the many thousands of women in the Superdome.
Earlier, during her set, Blige described her relationship with her overwhelmingly female audience. She is able to "relate to these women, speak to these women, speak for these women," she said.
She and the others onstage with her did just that Saturday night.