At first glance, the Essence Festival and the Bayou Country Superfest appear to have little in common, beyond being multiday music festivals staged in south Louisiana stadiums. Aesthetically and demographically, they are polar opposites.
Essence is indoors at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, features urban music, and is attended by a well-dressed, overwhelmingly black audience.
Bayou Country Superfest is outdoors at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, features country music, and is attended by a casually attired, overwhelmingly white audience.
But Essence and Bayou Country Superfest share a similar, significant challenge: Each depends on a limited pool of potential headliners.
By contrast, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — whose longtime producer, Quint Davis, co-founded Bayou Country Superfest after he was let go by Essence — enjoys the luxury of shopping for headliners across multiple genres. Jazz Fest has booked the same acts as both Essence and Bayou Country Superfest, plus the vintage and contemporary rock bands that wouldn’t fit into either of those festivals. The Halloween-weekend Voodoo Experience is even more eclectic, throwing hard rock and electronic dance music into the mix.
Between Essence and Bayou Country Superfest, the latter’s task is tougher. Only about a dozen country artists can dependably sell enough tickets to fill Tiger Stadium. One of them, George Strait, is now semiretired. Another, Garth Brooks, generally avoids stadiums in favor of multinight stands in arenas. A third, the country-to-pop convert Taylor Swift, is available, as she was in 2015, only if her show is not officially billed as part of the festival.
Translation: You’ll probably see a lot of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Blake Shelton and the Zac Brown Band at Bayou Country Superfest in the coming years.
Essence has a bit more latitude, especially now that select rappers are in the mix. But this week’s release of the 2016 roster was delayed more than once while the festival’s producers worked to confirm headliners. The process is never easy; this year, it took even longer than usual.
Availability inevitably reduces options. Beyonce will be touring Europe during this year’s Essence, which is June 30 to July 3. Rihanna — whose only Essence appearance to date was in 2008 — was already coming to New Orleans this year as part of her own tour (that show has been rescheduled for May).
The 2016 Jazz Fest had already booked Essence veterans Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monae and Lauryn Hill. But both festivals will present the R&B/soul singer Maxwell.
The 2016 Essence lineup is typical of its latter-day rosters. Most main stage acts are repeat performers, with the significant exception of Mariah Carey.
As one of the most successful female artists of all time, she was an obvious choice for a festival presented by a magazine aimed at women. How she’ll go over with the demanding Essence audience, which requires more than an impressive résumé, remains to be seen.
That Kendrick Lamar is back for the second consecutive year is no surprise. The Compton rapper is arguably the most acclaimed major artist in hip-hop. The 2016 Grammy Awards, during which he won five awards and delivered a highly theatrical, compelling performance, served as his coronation. He draws the younger audience that Essence needs to sustain its vitality.
But neither can the festival neglect the old school, its bread and butter. “Uncle” Charlie Wilson is to Essence now what Frankie Beverly was for the festival’s first 15 years: A consistent fan favorite. Wilson has lit up every Essence since 2009; he’s also appeared with the Gap Band. It’s a tall order to follow the force of nature that is Charlie Wilson at Essence, something Lionel Richie learned the hard way in 2014.
Maxwell’s history with Essence is a bit more uneven. He was the hot new thing in nouveau soul when he first hit the fest back in 1997. Since then, he’s canceled one show, shown up late for another and, in 2013, delivered a set that was solid but not spectacular. He’ll get another shot in the Superdome this summer.
Ditto New Edition. They rocked Essence in 2011 with their matching suits and crisp choreography, evoking a contemporary Temptations. Their return in 2013 was less electric; they’ll try again in 2016.
Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, the superstar R&B producer of the ’80s and ’90s who amassed an impressive catalog of his own hits, has been absent from Essence for several years. He was due for a return. Ciara, Faith Evans, Kelly Price — they’re all dependable, known quantities.
Landing Leon Bridges, the young retro soul singer from Texas, is a good “get” for Essence; he’ll likely appear on one of the four secondary “super-lounge” stages in the Dome’s corridors. So, too, the hip-hop/jazz hybrid the Robert Glasper Experiment — as the name implies, it is probably the most experimental act on the bill.
Essence still has at least one more artist to announce, an up-and-comer who has earned a slot on the main stage. Adding fresh faces is important, as presenting the same acts year after year risks audience fatigue. Attendance seemed to be down in 2015, a year without a superstar of the stature of Beyonce, Kanye West or Prince.
The 2016 roster can’t be fully assessed until the nightly schedules are released and the stage progressions can be considered. That’s when a festival’s true character emerges.
But for the most part, Essence fans already know what they’re getting.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.