Review / photos: Erykah Badu, Fantasia deliver erratic, enigmatic performances at Funk Fest Tampa Bay
It seemed organizers had finally gotten Funk Fest right. Compared with the qualms of years past, this third go at the fest had plenty of vendors, amenities and a solid lineup accompanied by a picturesque evening on Vinoy Park’s waterfront.
And things went well....for a while.
Friday night’s schedule of the two-day event billed Evelyn “Champagne” King, Fantasia and Erykah Badu. Rather than having an all general admission show, the festival offered four tiers of seating: platinum VIP, VIP, preferred and general admission. Sections were barricaded correspondingly from the stage, some with tables and chairs provided, except for general admission, which found itself a ways from the stage and relying on the jumbotron for adequate views.
King started promptly at 6 p.m., and despite not having any chart toppers since the early ‘80s, time has not slowed her down. Her vivacious energy, sensual dance moves and flawless vocals carried through her hits, Love Come Down, I’m in Love and Shame. She plugged her jazz guitarist, Freddie Fox, and played their collaboration, Happy Feelings, which seemed about all there was room for in her meager 30-minute time slot.
Between acts, a 95.7 The Beat DJ spoke, sometimes about Trayvon Martin and protecting black youth, but mostly amped up the crowd alongside DJ sets of dance medleys to keep the crowd engaged. And it did. Imagine hundreds of people in a sea of movement doing the choreographed Cupid Shuffle and having a funky Friday night dance party.
Things were feeling good, but then Fantasia’s start time came and went.
St. Petersburg Mayor, Bill Foster, came on stage and made a few remarks including, “Drop it like it’s hot,” followed by a thanks to the crowd and a note on the Rays’ Opening Day win. Yeah, that happened.
Finally, clad in a coral dress and talking about collard greens and cornbread, Fantasia went on stage nearly an hour late. The band was ready, but she wasn’t. Seeing the crowd divided, she refused to sing. She sassily demanded security to “unlock these gates,” and asked the crowd, “Why would you come out here to be locked up?” After realizing the gate removal was not going to happen, she said, “Well then I’m going to have to come to you.”
And so she came off stage, security guards in tow, and immersed herself into the swarming crowd of the VIP platinum area, found a table to stand on and performed her entire show from there. It was an unexpected thrill for the VIP sections. But more than half the crowd was forced to watch a Fantasia-less stage, or rely on the jumbotron to get a glimpse of what was going on.
The American Idol winner didn’t give her best performance, either. Maybe separating from her entire band changed the dynamic, but her gig seemed like one long song due to her scream-singing. At least that's what Simon Cowell would call it. There was some soul in there, but her fluctuations garbled up lyrics and overshadowed a lot of the individual melodies. Maybe she was just really into it. Of what I could make out, she played Collard Greens and Cornbread, Free Yourself, Man of the House and Bittersweet, with samples of The Beatles’ Come Together, Prince’s Kiss and Soul II Soul’s Back to Life mixed in between. Sadly, the scenery stole the show. As she sang, the sun set and a full orange moon rose over Tampa Bay. She finished around 9 p.m., still perched on that tabletop.
Despite Fantasia’s unplanned positioning, things still were good. Drinks poured, the intermission jams brewed excitement in the promise of Erykah Badu. Then an hour passed. The DJ started to repeat songs. People stopped dancing and started sitting. Restlessness was in the air by 10:30 p.m., when the festival was slated to end. Beer tents closed, food vendors packed up. No one knew what the delay was until it was announced that Badu was “en route, she’s on 275.” This news prompted a mass exodus of chagrined fans. She arrived about 20 minutes later and took the stage, no apologies given.
After opening with 20 Feet Tall, she asked if she had ever played in Tampa before (which all the performers called St. Pete that night), and went into Me, followed by On & On. She definitely indulged in her talent of quirky, fun live remixes combined with her onstage animation and beat machine skills.
The event seemed to go right, finally, even though more than half the crowd had left. The remaining portion of fans were on their feet, hoping for a midnight redemption. But that didn’t happen. Strong winds started to roll through the park and unhinged the giant Funk Fest banner behind the stage, causing the projection screen to slowly fall in the background. Badu was starting to warm up and had made her way through Tyrone, a mashup of songs including Love of My Life and Appletree, and was finishing Magic when the sound cut out. In a “that’s it” moment, she waved and left the stage. It was 11:30 p.m. and a 35-minute set. I was told Vinoy Park doesn’t allow noise after 11:30 p.m.
With $45-$125 shelled out by ticket holders that day, a hard-to-see Fantasia and a two-hours-late headliner who played for 35 minutes, I’d say Funk Fest will find controversy yet again this year. The 95.7 The Beat Facebook page already has comments from disenchanted fans. Some wished Fantasia and King played longer to fill the huge gaps, while others said Badu is notoriously late and organizers should have known better.
The Saturday shows featuring Charlie Wilson, Morris Day, El Debarge, Slick Rick and Whodini might have redeemed the Friday night fiasco, which was mostly out of the promoters' hands, but it may have been better to pay nothing and line the perimeter fence and get free listens and peeks from the street.
-- Stephanie Bolling, tbt*