PHOTOS: H.E.R., Erykah Badu and Other R&B Stars Shine at Lights On Festival

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H.E.R. performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Earnest lyrics about love, soulful instrumentation and a little bit of nostalgia tend to bring out the best in people—something H.E.R. surely thought about when she curated the Lights On Festival. The event brought an unmistakably joyful mood to the Concord Pavilion this past weekend, Sept. 18 and 19. Tens of thousands of R&B lovers, mostly Black and brown women of different ages, showed up in their most fashion-forward outfits to belt along to legacy acts (Keyshia Cole and Erykah Badu), appreciate some of today’s biggest stars (H.E.R. and her surprise guests, Ari Lennox, Ty Dolla $ign) and discover up-and-coming talent (Tiana Major9, VanJess and so many others).

Several of the artists on stage, including Cole and Ty Dolla $ign, said Lights On was their first live performance since the pandemic. And indeed, the excited energy of emerging was palpable throughout the fest, with a receptive audience hanging on the artists’ every word, putting their cell phone lights up and cheering with maximum intensity. With one stage for lesser-known acts during the day and another for heavy hitters in the evening, the design of the festival made it easy to stay put in one location and take in the music with minimal distractions.

Ty Dolla $ign performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

In addition to being a chart-topping singer, H.E.R. is known for her guitar chops, and Lights On had a noticeable emphasis on live instrumentation. Masego let his saxophone rip as if playing in a basement jazz club during “Tadow.” Ty Dolla $ign performed radio bangers like “Paranoid“ and “Blasé Blasé” with a six-piece band that included a brass section and head-banging guitarist. Erykah Badu arrived Parliament-Funkadelic-style with a 10-piece ensemble dressed in white bodysuits, as if they had just arrived from an Afrofuturist spaceship. Newcomer Fousheé impressed by hitting Mariah Carey-level high notes while her band interspersed gritty, post-punk power chords into their R&B compositions.

Although the cynical among us often complain that popular music has given way to lazy backing-track performances and recordings salvaged by Auto-Tune, Lights On Festival celebrated care and craft as the true core of R&B.

Greetings From Badubotron

Neo-soul queen Erykah Badu and her sprawling, percussion-forward band transported the audience with jazz and funk interpolations of her beloved hits and newer songs alike on Saturday night. Badu came out to an electrofunk beat in a silver cape and let us know that we were about to take a trip to Badubotron, with laser lights shining down like tractor beams from a UFO. The only rule is “to each his own,” since we each only know what’s best for us, she explained in song.

Erykah Badu performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Between tracks like "On & On," "Next Lifetime" and "Window Seat," Badu would instruct her band to cut the keys and bass so that the congas and other percussion instruments could rock the crowd. Their rhythms, passed down through generations of drummers, connected past to future when they were joined by the bleeps and bloops of a synthesizer. Rather than rush from song to song, her band played lengthy, extended versions that allowed the audience to really get into each groove.

Erykah Badu performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

During “Apple Tree,” one of her early hits from Baduizm, Badu showed she could scat with the best of them. Her improvisatory, free-spirited approach to her classic material was invigorating—a testament to her commitment to creatively challenging herself and making her own rules.

Keyshia Cole performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Keyshia Cole Gives an Emotional Hometown Performance

Oakland native Keyshia Cole doesn’t get brought up often enough in conversations about the R&B greats of the 2000s, but her powerhouse vocals and hit-after-hit setlist proved her standing. With a warm, honeyed timbre and runs that swelled into rapturous climaxes, Cole was a formidable presence at Lights On Saturday night.

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Cole arrived in a pink, sculptural dress with a cadre of male back-up dancers, also head-to-toe in baby pink, and delved into scorned-woman missives like “I Should Have Cheated,” heartbreak confessionals like “Love” and get-your-life-on-the-dancefloor favorites like “Let It Go,” her track with Missy Elliott and Lil Kim.

Keyshia Cole performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

The set took an emotional turn when Cole and her DJ paid homage to her late mother Frankie Lons, who passed away in July. “I’m happy she was a part of my life and I was able to experience her, and I’m happy you guys were able to experience her. She was so funny, so hilarious,” said Cole before taking the audience to church with the ballad “Heaven Sent.”

H.E.R. performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

H.E.R. Gives a Star-Studded Finale

As the festival curator and Sunday’s headlining artist, H.E.R. announced her mission statement to the crowd a few songs into her set: “I don’t know why people say R&B is dead when R&B lives in everything, it’s the foundation," the 24-year-old Vallejo native said. That idea proved to be the guiding light behind her dynamic, star-studded performance, which immediately energized the audience with sparks exploding from the stage and a quartet of dancing brass players.

Dressed in a regal red cape, H.E.R. presided over an ensemble of 10 musicians and singers, running through larger-than-life renditions of hits like “We Goin Crazy” and “B.S.” But the real fun began when the special guests began to reveal themselves from behind the curtain. After H.E.R. played her new track “Closer to Me” on keyboard (the beat of which flips Goapele’s 2001 hit “Closer”), Goapele joined H.E.R. on stage so the two Bay Area natives could harmonize on the original.

H.E.R. and Goapele perform at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)

The cameos only got more unexpected from there: Saweetie, another Bay Area native, came on to rap “Best Friend” in a pink fur coat; and Chloe Bailey (who’s proving to be the breakout star of Chloe x Halle) came on for a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” with H.E.R. shredding on her Fender. (An appearance from Chris Brown, given his history of allegations, didn’t make sense at a festival largely celebrating women, but the cheering crowd didn’t seem to mind.)

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If H.E.R. set out to prove R&B’s enduring relevance, by the end of Lights On, there was no question she succeeded.

Tiana Major9 performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Tiana Major9 performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Joyce Wrice backstage at Lights On Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Fousheé performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Fousheé performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Ty Dolla $ign performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Tiana Major9 backstage at Lights On Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Masego performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Masego performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
H.E.R. performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Bryson Tiller performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
VanJess backstage at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Ari Lennox performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Ari Lennox performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Kiana Ledé performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Kiana Ledé performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Lucky Daye performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Lucky Daye performs at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd partakes in complementary carnival rides at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
VanJess perform at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
VanJess perform at Lights On Festival at Concord Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
The crowd has a dance off at Lights On Festival on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)