By Kayleigh Hughes, special to the American-Statesman
The weather could not have been better on Friday night for the musical celebration that went down at Auditorium Shores during Austin’s 13th Urban Music Festival. On a crisp, clear night with a big full moon hanging bright in the sky, families, friends and lovers — our photographer snapped some great photos of a newly engaged couple — gathered to embrace the power of music, browse handmade art and fashion from local entrepreneurs, and, of course, sing and dance to one of America’s greatest girl groups, En Vogue. (Shoutouts to City Council Member Ora Houston and new Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk, who both made appearances onstage.)
Texas Jazz Explosion rocked it out as the first musicians of the festival’s evening stage show. While every performer in the group had a chance to shine with the kinds of solos and improvisations that make jazz performances so special, flute player Althea Rene stole the show with a presence and star quality I’ve never seen in a flutist.
Singer Vivian Green took the stage next, delivering soulful R&B to a fun and receptive crowd. Green showcased her powerful vocals with songs from throughout her almost two-decade-long career as a performer, pulling out feelings of heartbreak, empowerment, sensual desire and playful nostalgia at various turns. Giving her backup singers plenty of opportunities to highlight their own strong voices, Green fostered an environment of collaboration and sharing, both on the stage and with the audience, who she encouraged to love themselves and had singing and dancing for almost her entire set.
Behind the scenes, the kids of Soul Tree Collective, sharply dressed in all white and glowing with youthful energy after performing onstage earlier in the day, donned pins honoring fellow musician Draylen Mason, who was killed in the recent Austin bombings. The gifted 17-year-old Mason was a bassist in Soul Tree Collective, the Austin nonprofit that supports and trains local young R&B musicians, and his life was honored throughout the evening. The young performers got to speak with the members of En Vogue backstage, even singing a few bars with the iconic group.
And before En Vogue took the stage, the Urban Music Festival took time for a moving tribute to Mason, showing videos and photographs of the remarkable young man and calling for the entire crowd to shine their cell phones and light up the night for him. Looking out at thousands of tiny dots coming together to form a sea of light, you could feel the weight of loss and the equally strong sense of community support that builds love and keeps people close during hard times.
It was a cathartic moment of release when the celebrated headliners finally took the stage, charging immediately into one of their most-loved tracks, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get it)”. Dressed in cool black ensembles, Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron and Rhona Bennett rocked choreographed dance moves and a vibrant energy that shows just how consistent these musicians have been throughout their remarkable career. During their concise, carefully planned set, the trio delivered hit after hit while taking several moments to speak directly to the crowd.
After the group poured out a performance of “Give It Up Turn It Loose,” Ellis spoke of Mason, requesting a moment of silence and dedicating En Vogue’s show to the memory of the young musician. Then, in what was perhaps the highlight of a night full of them, the musicians burst into an electrifying performance of “Free Your Mind” in honor of Mason.
Playfully warning that Salt-N-Pepa were not onstage with them tonight and that “you don’t wanna hear us rap,” Ellis provided an introduction for the group’s smart, contemporary arrangement of the beloved single “Whatta Man,” which had the audience dancing, swaying and more than once shouting declarations of love toward the stage.
That evening, the savvy performers of En Vogue brought a celebratory experience to Auditorium Shores, sharing in the joy of the audience as they belted out one of the greatest soul, disco and R&B medleys of all time. From Diana Ross, Cheryl Lynn and Donna Summers to the Emotions, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, Ellis, Heron and Bennett held a crackling time-traveling party through some of the best of music history. The kids of Soul Tree Collective, stationed right up front, grooved along with as much passion as audience members from older generations.
Finishing with smash hit “Hold On,” En Vogue took their leave with an elegant choreographed bow and some final dance moves as they left the stage, closing out the night with one final reminder of what music can do for all of us.
(Urban Music Fest continues Saturday, with gates at noon and music starting at 3 p.m. Saturday’s headliners: Zapp, Dave Hollister and Johnny Gill. Soul Tree Collective is scheduled to play at 5:15 p.m. followed by a tribute to Draylen Mason at 5:45 p.m.)