Last night, we had the chance to catch the inaugural show of the Dell Music Center’s (formerly the Robin Hood Dell Center) Essence of Entertainment Series. It was a trip, one we’d gladly take again.
1. Let’s get this one big aspect of the night out of the way: The Dell is at, basically, 33rd and Ridge on the eastern edge of Fairmount Park. Perhaps due to the nature of the surrounding neighborhood, the tenor of the Essence of Entertainment Series or the fact that white Philadelphians can be ignorant, I believe that I was approximately one of five Caucasians in attendance. The Dell seats approximately 5,000 ticket-holders. And as I waited in line to enter through the gates, I felt serene. I knew no one would give me any looks, other than smiles, and that everyone was here to enjoy themselves, not be shady. Perhaps due to the seemingly adult-heavy crowd, the maturity of the night translated into a peaceful seating – no childish drunks or out-of-hand rule-breakers. It was also the most beautiful night of weather this summer.
2. There was a fly DJ whose name I couldn’t catch, but he was playing some excellent hits. And often, in the first few bars of each song between sets, the crowd let out hollers of delight with hands in the air and shoulders shaking in seats. When he played George McCrae’s “Get Lifted” followed by Cameo’s “Candy,” everything felt right in the world.
3. The food situation was a little comical. There were two long-ass lines for two separate enterprises: the Rita’s line (which had pretzels that ran out before I could get one between Ledisi and Chaka) and the fried food line. Honestly, the prices were excellent. Compared to every other event catering in the city, the Dell’s makin’ it cheap with nothing over $10 on the food menu, and Rita’s smalls were $3. While in line, I chatted with Tracey, aka “Cocoa-Nut the Cocoa-Median.” She gave me a card; she performs at weddings, birthdays, cookouts and more as an emcee, comedian and joke-provider. She told me that lawn seats used to be no more than $2, but now they start charging season passes at around $200. Here’s the joke she told me: “So this guy’s got $10 and really wants to get laid, so he goes over to this prostitute’s house and knocks on the door and says, ‘I only have $10, and I’m looking to get laid. Can you hook it up?’ The prostitute says, ‘Yeah, I got you.’ A few days later, he’s scratchin’ and scratchin,’ and sure enough: He looks at his fingernails and finds crabs underneath. He goes to the prostitute’s door, knocks and says, ‘You gave me crabs!’ And the prostitute says, ‘For $10, what were you expecting? Lobster?”
5. She did the jams I wanted to hear, including “Pieces of You,” and even turned in the excellent duet with Jaheim, “Stay Together,” brilliantly and accurately performing both parts. She’s got legit pipes and belts out the highest and lowest of scales with apparent ease. Once she got settled into her set, she seemed an appropriate opener for Chaka Khan. She loves Her Maker and so does Chaka—the slightly gospel veil of the evening was not lost on me.
6. Khan came gliding onto stage to “I Feel For You,” wearing a gold, Grecian-inspired spangled pantsuit. At first, it seemed like maybe she wasn’t actually going to sing like everyone knew she could. In the opener, she kind of let her (very capable) background singers carry the tune, and she popped in and out of the song with some vocal acrobatics at will. But this didn’t last. On the next one, the old Rufus jam “I’m a Woman,” she seemed fully settle into her vocal performance, with wails and runs that bordered on ear-splitting. That’s what we came for.
7. After “What Cha Gonna Do For Me?” and some extremely charming banter about grilling (”I’m from Chicago, and we love to grill in the park. Any old excuse” is necessary, she remarked, but “I’m glad you’re not grillin’ and that you’re here now.”), she brought out Ledisi to tear up “You Got the Love.” It’s the kind of song you memorize immediately when you hear it, with iconic lyrics like “Hold me tight / Why must I tell you what to do?” But the way Khan sings it makes it memorable, dropping down super-low for “tight” and soaring high for “to do.” Ledisi was astonishing too. She nailed her half of the song, even though she can’t really do the wail that Khan does so well.
8. Khan’s into astrology. “Ledisi’s an Aries; I’m an Aries,” she told us. “Aretha Franklin’s Aries.” Note: Acquire more Aries divas in my life.
9. After “Everlasting Love,” she was extremely honest about the next one being her “Baby daddy song.” The crowd grumbled a little, and she confessed that she’d written it after meeting her first husband. She asked the crowd—the ladies, more specifically— “How many of you are here with your boyfriends?” There was a suspicious silence. “Oh, they’re probably married,” she said, like there were lots of sidepiece situations in attendance. It’s alright, she confessed: “God will send him to me when the time is right,” she said of herself. Sounds like someone is single and looking for love.
10. Perhaps one of the biggest highlights of the night was when she pulled Patti LaBelle on stage for “Tell Me Something Good.” The two of them felt like a natural duo, and both sang the hell out of each lyric or fraction thereof. When Khan did “Sweet Thing,” I could hear the people around me singing the lyrics better than I could hear her. Before a stunning finale, she did “My Funny Valentine,” then it was time for the one-two punch of “I’m Every Woman” and “Ain’t Nobody.” I danced on the grass at the top of the hill because as soon as the first notes of “I’m Every Woman” drifted over the crowd, it was like a cue for everyone to head to their cars, and a mass exodus began. Strangers danced with me as they walked by. “Ain’t Nobody” is one funky piece of music.