In Cincinnati they’re used to a big roar emanating from Paul Brown Stadium; after all, the downtown venue is where the city’s NFL franchise Cincinnati Bengals play. But on July 28 and 29 the stadium was alive with noise of another sort as the sounds of hip-hop, R&B and sweet soul music captivated a large crowd that had come for the Cincinnati Music Festival Presented by P&G, one of the nation’s biggest and most beloved urban music festivals.
The first night of the festival on July 28 was heavily stacked with retro acts, and the show opened with a set by SWV who, in their matching Girl Scout-ish outfits, sang oldies like “I’m So Into You,” “Right Here,” “Weak” and “You’re the Man.” The ladies also performed “Ain’t No Man,” which comes from their 2016 release Still. En Vogue was up next and they likewise focused on their hits, running through biggies like “My Lovin’,” “Whatta Man,” “Free Your Mind,” and the song that started it all for the girls, the big hit “Hold On.” The trio also showed off their still mighty vocal prowess, singing a few stunning acapella verses and also delving into some of their influences with a medley that included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Lady Marmalade” and “Tell Me Something Good.”
The energy level in the crowd, which was a packed house estimated at 40,000, went up considerably when Bell Biv DeVoe took the stage for a set that included “Something in Your Eyes,” cuts from their latest effort Three Stripes, and “Poison” where the band famously name-checks themselves. When the guys went way back to the New Edition catalog for a take on “Candy Girl” the song turned into a massive sing-along as most in the crowd knew the lyrics. DeVoe however, after the song, teased the audience saying he thought they got the words wrong, offering with feigned astonishment, “You’ve had 30 damn years to learn that song!”
After Bell Biv DeVoe the mayor of Cincinnati, John Cranley, appeared on stage to thank the crowd for coming to the Cincinnati Music Festival, and he also gave a shout-out to all the fans who had come in from Chicago, Detroit and other cities for the event. Chicago seemed to have the biggest contingent at the festival but the Detroit-based fans roared for the next act up, the Motor City’s own Kem. Kem started his set on a raucous note and performed “Got to Be Real” with festival host Doug E. Fresh, but then settled in mid-set to some slow jams, telling the audience between songs that, “This is grown folks music!”
Closing out the festival’s first evening was Mary J. Blige, who likewise started out on a rowdy note before singing some of the slow jams that she’s famous for. Blige played cuts like “My Life,” “No More Drama” and “Everything,” often taking the time between songs to issue messages of empowerment, especially for women, and she also gave lengthy and exuberant thanks to the Almighty. Not short on glamour either, Blige made numerous costume changes.
The Cincinnati Music Festival would continue on July 29 with sets from headliner Usher as well as performances by Fantasia, Anthony Hamilton, ConFunkShun and Ro James.
More information on the Cincinnati Music Festival Presented by P&G is available here.