Jackson is the Essence of Pop Fest
Worth the wait: Beyoncé's closing set started 45 minutes late Friday night (when John Legend ran overtime), but the hard-hoofing R&B belter treated the sold-out crowd to a visually, sonically and emotionally spectacular 90-minute show.
Without sacrificing a moment of momentum, she incorporated seven costume changes to achieve looks that included virginal bride (for Ave Maria), water nymph (Ready for Love), slinky feline (Radio) and sequined diva (At Last).
During Halo, the music paused and the screen displayed a home movie taken of her as a 5-year-old chattering about attending a Michael Jackson show. "That night I saw my hero perform," she told the crowd. "When I saw Michael Jackson hit the stage, that's when I decided who I wanted to be."
A giant image of Jackson in profile appeared on-screen as the music resumed, and Beyoncé poured out a new verse, sinking to her knees and adding, "Michael, I can see your halo, I can feel your halo I pray, I pray, I pray it won't fade away."
Finally, to resurrect the drained audience, she ended with a jaunty version of Happy Birthday.
Smooth moves: Ne-Yo arrived on stage earlier in the day dressed in an outfit that evoked one of Jackson's classic looks: black pants, white jacket with black shoulder trim and a black fedora. "I'm going to do what I can to keep the memory alive," he said before launching into a series of Jackson-inspired dance moves, done to his own songs. Later, he included a riff from Jackson's Human Nature in his own Sexy Love.
Lounging around: Some of the hottest action took place in the four intimate "superlounges" in the corners of the Superdome. Fans could stand in line for food that was far superior to the stadium norm - fried chicken, jambalaya, hot-sausage po' boys, red beans and rice, shrimp Creole, red velvet cake - and then get up close to acts such as Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Keri Hilson, Eric Benét, Solange (Beyoncé's little sister) and the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. TV monitors helped them keep track of the artists on the main stage.
Heartfelt thanks: Comedian Steve Harvey ended his spiel for the festival's sponsors with a fervent Jackson tribute, calling him "the single greatest live performer of our lifetime" and pleading with the crowd to not "lose sight of the human being. He was the man who put black people on MTV. Without him, we would have never crossed that barrier."
He's only 'Human': Robin Thicke dedicated his set Saturday to Jackson and adopted a breathy voice reminiscent of his hero's for a tender a cappella version of Human Nature as the crowd sang along.
Keep the music going: Gap Band veteran Charlie Wilson wrapped his brief shout-out to Jackson ("We lost one of the greatest entertainers of all time") inside a mini-testimony in which he also mentioned being "clean and sober for 15 years." Wilson then resumed his set of hard-edge, high-energy dance tunes and sartorial display of monochromatic pastel suits and hats.
A sad 'Walk' with Jackson: New Orleans bid Jackson a surprise farewell with a traditional brass-band-led funeral/second-line procession. Nine musicians, clad in head-to-toe black, slowly walked onstage playing a dirgelike Just a Closer Walk With Thee. They bowed their heads, turned their backs to the audience and stood silent as a video montage featuring Jackson played on the Jumbotrons flanking the stage. At the end, the band sprang back to life, playing a jaunty and joyous version of the hymn while strolling offstage.
Aging melodically: During Anita Baker's glossy set, the adult-contemporary diva referenced the pains of growing old ("We need to get some age-appropriate arrangements," she cracked to her band while panting slightly). Her fearsomely powerful voice, however, easily filled the Superdome.
Fans not floored: Maxwell is making a comeback with his first album in eight years, but he didn't endear himself to the crowd when he took to the stage early Sunday at 1:15 a.m., 90 minutes behind schedule.
In the middle of his show - a collection of similar-sounding sex-and-love songs - he dedicated to Jackson his This Woman's Work, a song about love and loss. After that interlude, the crowd began to thin noticeably.