This year’s lineup at the top of the bill looked similar to recent ones, with sure-thing headliners Charlie Wilson and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly booked for Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Keep it comin’ Charlie: Wilson obviously believes in leaving a good thing alone. His set began at a quarter to midnight and carried forth for 90 minutes with many of the same songs, routines and between-song raps he has busted out at recent Macy’s appearances. So far, the same thing from Uncle Charlie once a year isn’t too often. Wilson kept up with the dance steps and worked through a line of solo hits and older stuff from his days with the Gap Band.
Modern KEM: Like Wilson, KEM is a veteran of the festival, and his understated, mature brand of R&B – in contrast to Wilson’s fire – went over well with the crowd. The intro to “Golden Days” began with a monologue outlining all the reasons the women in the crowd should feel good about themselves, KEM’s way of drawing a line between him and certain attitudes toward women in R&B music today.
Later in the set he again set himself apart by turning over the spotlight to his three backup singers, who each sang lead on an old hit – the Emotions’ “Best of My Love,” Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” and Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Love.” KEM completed the old-school block of love by singing Luther Vandross’ “All My Love” himself.
Likeable Ledisi: Ledisi was the most likeable act, favoring an up-tempo repertoire with a focus on positive lyrics and displaying the strongest voice of the night. Songs like “Alright” and “Bravo” show an earthiness uncommon in most contemporary R&B singers.
More for the ladies: Jaheim’s performance Saturday was solely for the ladies, just like KEM’s Friday night performance. Where KEM seduced with sweet talk, Jaheim enthralled with his ability to go into the crowd and mingle.
After singing “Finding My Back,” “Put That Woman First,” “Everytime I Think About Her” and Luther Vandross’ “A House Is Not a Home,” Jaheim told the crowd he had a special gift for them and threw roses into the front rows.
Frankie Beverly: “Back in Stride” (with Beverly playing keys) and “Happy Feelings” led up to Maze’s and the fest’s climax, the captivating “Joy and Pain.” Everybody was on their feet, swaying to the grooves and repeating the chorus. No other performer Saturday night was able to extract such an emotional call and response from the audience, an example of Beverly’s staying power.