As Diana Ross and her band negotiated her disco-era hit “Upside Down” on the 2017 Essence Festival’s opening night, she addressed the upper decks of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome: “Can you feel the music up there?”
She deemed the response insufficient. “They can’t hear the music up there,” she decided. Alternately, she wondered, “Is this a shy audience?”
No, not shy — just small.
Fewer than half the 47,000 or so seats available in the Essence seating configuration were filled Friday. Both the middle, loge level and upper terrace levels were sparsely populated; rows of seats at the back of the floor and side sections of the lower, plaza-level bleachers were also empty.
Ross received little feedback from the upper decks because they lacked the critical mass of fans necessary to generate it.
Which was too bad, as the folks who were in the Dome seemed to enjoy themselves. That's not surprising. The last three acts on the main stage Friday night — India.Arie, John Legend and Ross — are all fine artists who delivered fine sets.
The arithmetic simply didn’t work in the festival’s favor. Ross is a legend, but her last hit was years ago. Her most recent stand-alone concert in New Orleans was at the Saenger Theatre, capacity about 2,600.
That’s probably about how many tickets Ross can sell in New Orleans on her own. Legend and Arie fall in a similar range.
Even combining all three on the same bill doesn't add up to nearly enough ticket-selling star power to fill the Superdome.
Early in its 23-year history, Essence benefited from a built-in audience that returned year after regardless of the headliners; the event sold itself.
That no longer appears to be the case. A superstar act, one that normally headlines stadiums or at least arenas, is necessary to drive ticket sales. Unfortunately, there is only one Beyoncé, and she’s been busy of late having babies. Prince is deceased.
Bruno Mars, Sade, The Weeknd, Rihanna, Drake, Kanye West — none of those A-listers was available, either.
Arie, a contemporary R&B and soul singer-songwriter, is an Essence regular with good reason. Her music, presence, persona and all-around outlook dovetail perfectly with Essence.
Onstage, she addressed a mini-controversy from a couple of years ago over photos in which her skin tone appeared to have been lightened. In show business, she explained, some things are beyond an artist’s control. “I love my brown skin,” she declared. “I love being black.”
She reiterated the point with her song “Brown Skin,” a sumptuous ode to, well, brown skin.
Elsewhere, Lou Miller finger-picked an acoustic guitar as Arie lofted a lovely “Complicated Melody.” She identified “I Am Light,” from her 2013 “SongVersation” album, as the only song of hers that she actually listens to, on account of the hard-won truths it contains.
She also made clear that she considered her allotted set time at Essence woefully inadequate. She signed off, optimistically, with, “I’ll see y'all next year … with more time.”
Legend was his usual polished self in a sharp tuxedo jacket, partially unbuttoned black shirt and gleaming black shoes. In “Tonight (Best You Ever Had),” his boasts came across as harmless. So, too, did his duet with a female backing vocalist in “Darkness and Light.”
The set got more interesting with the flute solo in “Another Again” and when, in “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” Legend dug in, gripping his microphone stand like a soul singer in ecstasy. He rendered “Ordinary People” and “All of Me” alone at the piano; his sense of melody, and the movement he put in the songs, was enough to carry them.
For the uptempo “Green Light,” he stood atop his piano, prompting much of the audience to finally stand as well. The final “Glory,” though truncated, was properly powerful, with its bold guitar chords and anthemic chorus.
Ross soon arrived in a glittering green gown with a matching wrap/cape. Her catalog is filled with classics, and she seemed determined to revisit as many of them as possible in an hour and 20 minutes.
The 73-year-old Supreme diva introduced herself with “I’m Coming Out,” followed in quick succession by “More Than Yesterday” and the Supremes song “My World Is Empty Without You.”
She sometimes relied on her three backing vocalists to carry the load, but she sang a lot herself. She beamed throughout the show and consistently engaged with the audience.
“Baby Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Come See About Me” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” whipped by in quick succession. She waited a full 25 minutes before ducking out for the first of two costume changes, re-emerging in a sparkling red gown with matching fan.
Her six-man band, spiked by a saxophonist, served the songs well. Vocalist Fred White filled in for Lionel Richie on the duet “Endless Love.” Her drummer switched to brushes for “Don’t Explain,” from her Billie Holiday film “Lady Sings the Blues.” She represented her role in “The Wiz” with “Ease on Down the Road.”
After “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” she let her band stretch out on Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” — one diva saluting another.