Former Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson has become an Essence Music Festival hero for his showmanship, energy, voice and story of recovery. His set Friday would have been the night’s top story if it weren’t for Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.
Maze followed Wilson on the main stage in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, returning to the festival after a six-year absence.
The Oakland-based funk band had closed Essence for so long that many assumed they were a New Orleans band, and their sets became old-school dance parties.
The festival shook up its lineup in 2010, and in recent years it has brought in other pop/funk hitmakers including Lionel Richie and Earth, Wind and Fire to close out the event on Sunday nights, but nobody else has inspired Maze’s communal party vibe.
Friday night, the audience was ready for Maze’s return. Many came dressed in all white — the band’s trademark stage attire — and when Maze took the stage, it and the Essence audience picked up where they left off six years earlier.
When the band played “Running Away” a half-hour or so into the show, many in the audience got up and danced the Electric Slide in the middle aisle.
“New Orleans discovered us,” Beverly said between songs. “We sold 900,000 copies of our first album, and 300,000 of them came from New Orleans.”
Beverly’s voice bumped into some range limits, but he was easily up to most of the demands of Maze’s urbane funk, and he had a jazz singer’s feel for how to parse out the rhythms of the lines he sang.
Many ’70s funk bands make their inner-city roots part of a gritty text or subtext, but Maze’s clean, sophisticated funk is relentlessly and genuinely positive.
Beverly sounded 100 percent committed when he sang the celebratory “Back in Stride Again.”
Unfortunately, an ill-timed break in the music broke the spell. After “Running Away,” Beverly took the opportunity to introduce the band, and that interruption, followed by the brie-and-chablis “Golden Time of Day” — accompanied on the video screens by travel-magazine photos of beaches at sunset — sent the electric sliders back to their seats.
A crowd that had been buzzing with anticipation a little earlier got a chance to notice that it was almost midnight and getting late. Maybe the middle-aged fan base finds late nights harder than it once did. Or maybe the vibe got a little too mellow.
Whatever the case, the late-night exodus from the Superdome was noticeable.
Neither Maze nor the remaining faithful seemed daunted. If anything, fewer people meant more room to dance, and as the set picked up energy, more and more aisles on the floor of the Dome were commandeered by dancers moving in unison.
The last 20 minutes felt particularly upbeat, and during “Joy and Pain” and “Before I Let Go,” those seeing the band at Essence for the first time got a sense of what the legend was all about.
It’s possible that fans’ memories are kind to Maze’s previous sets at Essence and that they remember the electric slides better than those who left early.
But Friday night confirmed that they’re right to fondly recall those shows and that Maze is still worthy of their loyalty.