The 26thAnnual Capital Jazz Festival beckoned thousands of music lovers to the Merriweather Post Pavilion in downtown Columbia, Maryland. Since 1993, it’s become a tradition that has several givens: 1.) Stellar musical lineups. 2.) African American adults gather for the artists and the camaraderie with elaborate picnics, tents and tailgating—without the cars. 3.) Iffy weather is often an unwanted guest star. This year was no different. The music was wonderful, the love was in the air and the precipitation (showers to downpours) thinned the audience as the event evolved.
The CJF has two stages: The outdoor Symphony Woods Stage is open to anyone with a festival ticket. The roofed arena, called The Pavilion, has reserved seats and higher prices. Both venues have equally impressive lineups.
Friday Night: All the action is at the Pavilion, where Butterscotch opens, Ledisi follows and the legendary Earth, Wind & Fire almost blew the roof off of the place with two-hours of classics: “Boogie Wonderland,” “September,” “Shining Star” and the dreamy “After the Love Has Gone.” The band brought the crowd to its feet.
Saturday Night: Folks at the SSW, who endured a steady drizzle, were treated to Liv Warfield & The NPG Hornz, Dave Hollister and After 7 who set the atmosphere up for the titillating gyrations of Keith Sweat and the extremely animated and loving Fantasia, who stood out in the rain on the edge of the stage wooing the audience with her songs like “Lose to Win.” The evening’s star performance went to Smokey Robinson.
At the comfortable and dry Pavilion Stage, Philly’s Jeff Bradshaw & Friends opened the door for the “Lean on Me”: A Tribute to Bill Withers featuring José James. Then Keiko Matsui performed. The extraordinary and musically eccentric stylings of Rachelle Ferrell brought the evening into view. Brooklyn’s energetic jazz troubadours Snarky Puppy followed. The tempo toned down with the smooth jazz saxophone of Boney James, whose rendition of Hall & Oates lovely song “Sara Smile” is only outclassed by Avery Sunshine’s vocals on James’s new song ‘Honestly.” The two had never met each other and were only acquainted over the Internet until they united for this performance. The evening finished with Grammy-award winning pianist/vocalist Diana Krall, who enthralled the audience with a Nat King Cole tribute and the song “L-O-V-E,” followed by the entrancing “Night and Day.”
Sunday Night: The heavens released a torrent of water on Sunday, with flood warnings and the weak of heart heading for Noah’s Ark. But strong-willed music lovers still gathered at Merriweather and their determination was well rewarded. At SSW the spirit of the sorely missed balladeer Luther Vandross was alive and well with “Luther Re-Lives”: A Tribute to Luther Vandross(featuring William “Smooth” Wardlaw). The Hamiltones, Tevin Campbell and the sultry British R&B artist Joss Stone braved the rain to treat the audiences to dazzling performances. Brandy’s set was highlighted by a surprising homage to Whitney Houston that climaxed with the singer’s “How Will I Know.” Then Larry Graham & Graham Central Station came on and thanked the audience for their “Wakanda” love. They took everyone on a trip down memory lane to Woodstock when Sly and the Family Stone performed the very funky songs: “Thank You,” “Dance to the Music” and “Everyday People.”
At the Pavilion Stage, this was the diamond night. Earlier in the day, Moonchild, the silky voice of Lizz Wright and then violinist Damien Escobar warmed the audience up. “As You Are”: A Tribute to Phyllis Hyman honored the ‘70s singer with stunning performances by Najee and Regina Belle who breathed new verve into tunes like “Somewhere in My Lifetime” and “Betcha By Golly Wow.” Bob James and his stripped-down band, now a trio, beguiled the audience with songs from his new album Espresso.
The regal act of the entire festival was Anita Baker, in her farewell tour. No one knew what to expect, and she started with the unexpected. She took the stage with her incredible band and angelic backup singers launching into “Lady Marmalade,” the Labelle hit. She made it her own as she sashayed across the stage bringing the audience into a state of euphoria. Thousands of fans were in awe, and many of them extended well out from the dry comfort of the covered arena into the wet, dark night on drenched lawns. Baker was humbled by the assemblage and reverently relayed her plans for the evening, “All I got for you is a bunch of love songs.”
In fine voice, so buttery it could sooth anything that ails, she soulfully sang “Sweet Love” and “Been So Long.” Bob James returned to the stage, sat at a grand piano and started “My Funny Valentine,” as Baker joined in wistfully using her jazziest tones.
Baker also made it clear that when the festival approached her to perform, she insisted that the millennial female singers got a chance to grace the stages too. Her request meant that Fantasia, Rachelle Ferrell and Ledisi were added to the roster.
The highlights of the singer’s evening were her duet with Regina Belle on “You Bring Me Joy,” with each singer pushing the other to higher plains, and then a memorial tribute to those who had passed away with photos of Luther Vandross, George Duke, Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Maurice White and Prince projected on the screen.
Anita Baker’s farewell show crowned the weekend. It was worth the cost of the entire fest, hotels, transportation and any other expenses. For those who witnessed it, it’s an indelible memory that will linger forever.
The music, the shared experiences and the love in the air overshadowed the bad weather. That’s what good music festivals do, they help people forget their troubles and embrace the good times.
The Travel Hints:
- Buy tickets for the reserved-seat Pavilion Stage, its roof protects audiences and performers from downpours. Pavilion tickets are also good for the Symphony stage performances, but not vice versa.
- Bring your own food to the event and avoid long, nightmarish concession stand lines. Drive over to Wegmans for high-quality prepared foods. Try the: Penne with Sausage & Vodka Blush Sauce Pasta Bowl, BBQ Seasoned Roasted Chicken or the Moroccan Veggie Stew Veggie Bowl.
- See how locals have fun. Head over to the Fairland Sports and Aquatics Center, a massive athletic facility. Enjoy the pools, indoor tennis courts, gymnastics, basketball courts and beach volleyball and mingle.
- Surprisingly, the quickest, freshest and tastiest breakfast is at the grill at the very unique Whole Foods Market, which has indoor and outdoor seating that overlooks Lake Kittamaqundi.
- Book hotels (Sheraton Columbia Town Center Hotel is within walking distance) and tickets at least three months in advance; both are known to sell out fast.
- Cruise around Howard County, Maryland and get to know the area.
Visit NNPA News Wire Entertainment Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.comand BlackPressUSA.com.