Singer, songwriter and pianist Lionel Richie created an amazing catalog of hits. He performed many of them Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during closing night of the 20th Essence Festival.
But Richie’s music sales in the millions and popularity that rivaled his 1980s peers Prince and Michael Jackson couldn’t stop the party train led by Charlie Wilson, another of Sunday’s Essence Festival main-stage performers, from running over the night’s headlining act.
By the time the ballad-oriented Richie took the stage at 11:30 p.m., many festivalgoers had left. Many more would leave before the end of his anticlimactic performance.
Just before Richie’s show, Wilson sang, danced and testified with a vigor that belied his 61 years. Just like last year, Wilson and his dancers and musicians entertained to the utmost.
Preceding Wilson on the main stage, the beguiling Erykah Badu performed songs from her uniquely soulful, jazzy oeuvre.
Tamar Braxton opened the music at the main stage at 7 p.m., with a half-hour show featuring much bumping and grinding from the singer and reality TV star of “Braxton Family Values” and “Tamar and Vince.”
Wilson, like Richie, has been a star for decades, first in a group and later as a solo act. His show began at 9:25 p.m. with shouts of “Tickets! Tickets! All aboard! All aboard. This train is moving!”
Of course, the opening song was “Party Train,” Wilson’s 1983 hit with the Gap Band. The singer and four female dancers, all in sparkling costumes, danced their way onstage doing an approximation of a moving train. No other Sunday night act could beat that entrance.
“How many of y’all came to party with Charlie Wilson tonight?” Wilson asked before he sang another Gap Band funk hit, “Early in the Morning.” Judging by the largely filled Superdome that partied with Wilson, then left after his show, most of them.
Wilson took a breather following his first four songs. “I’m tired as hell,” he said.
In the same break, he acknowledged the festival’s anniversary. “Twenty years of nothing but successful African-American beauty!” And then, in a powerful voice, he got back on the train and kept going. The crowd cheered him on with chants of “Go Charlie! Go Charlie!”
If Wilson was the night’s showman, Badu was its chanteuse. Comedian Dave Chappelle introduced her. The singer’s Essence Festival performance followed a guest appearance last week at one of Chappelle’s 10 sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall.
Chappelle compared his return to show business following nearly a decade away to New Orleans’ comeback after Hurricane Katrina. “And like this city, I will rise from the ashes,” he said.
Badu, a Dallas native, sauntered on stage wearing a huge white cowboy hat — a 25-gallon model, it seemed, that fit her opening song, “20 Feet Tall,” a mellow, stylish example of classic Baduism from her 2010 album, “New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh.” Following that opening, she eased back to 1997 for a serenely hip rendition of “On & On,” a hit from her album debut, “Baduizm.”
“Thank you, New Orleans, good night,” Badu said after three songs. Just kidding. She stuck around for one of the great sets of Essence Festival No. 20. Before the subtly grooving “Didn’t Cha Know,” she explained that performing is her therapy. And that particular song, she said, makes her feel good. It could make just about anyone feel good.
In the wakes of Badu’s artistry and Wilson’s showmanship, Richie and his economically sized five-piece band looked as if they were playing a by-the-numbers private gig for some giant corporation or well-heeled charity. Richie’s talent and success can’t be denied, but his competent, routine show held no sense of occasion.