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.
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.
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.
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 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.