Earth, Wind & Fire was alternately singing about the 12th of never and the 21st night of September, but it was all about the 19th evening of June as the veteran group proved an obvious audience favorite during “Juneteenth: A Global Celebration for Freedom,” a multi-artist, multi-genre show at the Hollywood Bowl broadcast live on CNN Sunday to commemorate the national holiday.
Held to celebrate the anniversary of Black emancipation in the U.S., the concert spanned almost as wide an array of musical and performance styles as could be packed into a single prime-time slot, from soul to classical to country to jazz. That breadth established, the lineup had a special emphasis on artists that ruled the R&B world of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, leading an emcee to joke to the sold-out audience about a time “before all those knee replacements out there.”
Even with EWF, Chaka Khan and others getting the crowd on its feet, there may have been no greater eruption of joy during the three hours than the one that occurred during a short set by Bell Biv DeVoe. “I was gonna be Mrs. Ronnie DeVoe,” said Leslie Jones, of “SNL” fame, in introducing the trio, sounding like she still wasn’t past thinking about the prospect. “But everybody knew that I was poiii-soooon.”
Lighter moments such as those abounded, but the concert and broadcast never moved on at any great length from the commemorative purpose of the event, especially in a handful of pre-recorded segments, including a telecast-opening rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Yolanda Adams, speeches by President Joe Biden, VP Kamala Harris and former First Lady Michelle Obama, and a fiery poetry reading on video from Jill Scott. Beyonce made a voiceover cameo in a video segment on Opal Lee, 95, the activist many consider most responsible for leading the charge to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, which finally happened only last year.
Socially conscious numbers rendered live included Billy Porter and several dancers taking to the platform around the pool seating area to deliver “Children” (“Gonna let these children know what time is is”), and country music favorite Mickey Guyton, who got in not one but two era-specific anthems — Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and her own recent power ballad, “Black Like Me.”
Khan celebrated the emancipation of women as well as Blacks with a rip-roaring “I’m Every Woman” early in the proceedings; that and “Ain’t Nobody” had the R&B great accompanied by the Roots, whose Questlove was one of two music directors for the program (Adam Blackstone was the other).
Current R&B did not go unrepresented, with Khalid making a one-song appearance to deliver his 2019 R&B chart-topper “Talk.” Ne-Yo has not had an album out since 2018, but that did not stop the crowd from falling hard for a sensuality that was only maybe only accentuated by the hat that kept his face in constant shadow. That led the emcee to wonder just what extraordinary means the singer took to keep it from flying off amid the sweaty choreography, as he ran through a medley of “Miss Independent,” “Because of You” and “Give Me Everything.”
The most up-and-coming star on the bill, Lucky Daye, went old-school with one of his two numbers, covering Leon Russell’s classic ballad “A Song for You,” as well as hitting “Over” from his sophomore album of last fall. Robert Glasper got genre-crossing MVP marks for getting in some splendid jazz piano as well as participating in a more straightforward R&B performance.
The Re-Collective Orchestra, billed as the first all-Black orchestra to take the Hollywood Bowl stage, backed several of the performers as well as getting its own turn in the spotlight, under the conduction of Derrick Hodge and one of the Bowl’s most familiar faces, Thomas Wilkins. Despite standing on a bit more formality than some of the other performers, even some of the string players could be seen getting up and dancing when Bell Biv DeVoe was on stage. Meanwhile, members of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, introduced by the org’s leader, took center stage and made sure choreography was not limited during the evening to Ne-Yo’s or Porter’s backup dancers.
It may be considered sacriligious to follow gospel music with secular, so the final portion of the show and telecast were given over to three performers who performed gospel numbers separately and together, Mary Mary, Anthony Hamilton and Michelle Williams. This was gospel with dance-music tempos, so Bowl ushers didn’t have any easier of a time keeping the aisles clear of dancing when all of those performers teamed up for Mary Mary’s “The God in Me” than they had during EWF or BBD.
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