EW Staff
July 07, 2007 AT 05:12 AM EDT

EW freelancer Cynthia Joyce sends this report from day one of the Essence Festival in New Orleans. Watch for her wrap-up of the rest of the fest on Monday.

Tell someone in New Orleans you’re headed to Essence Fest — or The Essence, as they say in the local parlance — and the first thing they’ll ask you is not which act you’re going there to see (with Ludacris, Ciara, Mary J. Blige, and Beyoncé headlining a bill of almost 40 acts on five stages, it’d be tough to pick just one), but rather, “What are you going to wear?”

The festival, which returned home to New Orleans for its 13th year after being “loaned” to Houston last summer, has long since proven itself as the “party with a purpose,” offering free empowerment seminars by day to those who don’t necessarily want to pay for the big ticket hip-hop, soul, and R&B acts the event has been known to draw. This year, the old school/new school balance that the festival has long been celebrated for may have finally tipped, with Ne-Yo, Ruben Studdard, Chris Brown, and Robin Thicke giving old soul favorites like the Isley Brothers and Maze a run for their money.

But unofficially, as NOLA locals well know, Essence is really a three-day-long fashion show (the shoe department at Saks deserves to be an honorary sponsor), and every year over the July Fourth weekend, the entire French Quarter turns into a catwalk — you’re not likely to see lower necklines, higher heels, heavier hoop earrings, or whiter white linen anywhere.

The whole thing turns up several notches at night, and I will admit to spending too much time fretting over what to wear for the first night of performances. Believe me, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing as you read this: You would have felt underdressed, too.

addCredit(“Ciara: Brian Ach/WireImage.com”)

Yesterday started a little slow, and many a hairdid was nearlyundone by the afternoon rains, but by the time the Isley Brothersperformed what might as well be New Orleans’ anthem —”It’s Your Thing(Do What you Want to Do)” — things had picked up considerably.   

Few performers could pull off as high-powered of a set as Ludacrisdid in such an enormous arena without the people in Section K, Row 426getting a little bored. Unfortunately, Luda himself seemed a littlebored. As he admitted during his Jazzfest performance earlier thisyear, he’s got so many hits to pick from that he can’t decide what todo. Not surprising then that last night’s performance felt phoned in—maybe now that we’re likely to see more of him on the big screen, hedoesn’t need to be larger than life on stage, but I hope this doesn’tmean that his music career has already crested.

Seeing Lafayette’s Cupid —one of few local acts at the festival — as he played to a packedSuperLounge crowd was like watching a star ignite. Cupid’s “Shuffle”has taken him from regional phenomenon to major label recording act inless than six months — you can’t drive through this town and not hearit blaring from a front porch or the car next to you — and it’s caughton particularly online, where people have posted hundreds of homemade videos of themselves shuffling.

Cupid launched into an earnest gospel ballad version of the shufflelast night, accompanied only by his own keyboard playing, beforeliterally stepping into the refrain — and the entire crowd fell in withhim — clearly these people had been practicing. Afterward, I overheard a woman tell her friend, “I think my deodorant just died.”

I have but one thing to say about Ciara (pictured), who performed onthe mainstage just before Ludacris: She is all the reason you’ll everneed to finally quit your gym membership. Really, if you can’t looklike that, why bother?

The only person who came even close to matching Ciara’s purephysical prowess on the main stage  was Sen. Barack Obama, who broughtthe crowd to its feet and kept them there during a 15-minute speech,which was pretty closely matched in content by Hillary Clinton’s speechtoday. Like Obama, Clinton was critical of the current administration’sfailures, and less diplomatically so: “It’s almost hard to believe allthe problems we’re going to inherit when Bush/Cheney finally exit theWhite House…” 

(After detailing a similar dirty laundry list last night, Obama did pause to add, “… and that’s all before you get to Scooter.”)

And the Best Showoff Performance Award goes to… Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers, with his trademark head scarf (is thatwhere Little Steven got that from??). He shredded his guitar, firstbehind his head, then with his teeth, and all within the first 30seconds of the opening song, “Who’s That Lady?”

And now for a word about our sponsors.

At yesterday’s opening ceremonies, a McDonalds VP told the audiencethat the mass chain has reopened almost all of its New Orleans”restaurants” — a stretch of a title in a city that has defined the artof both fine and simply fabulous dining, certainly, but there issomething to be said for a corporation having delivered on what hasturned out to be a mostly empty promise to rebuild New Orleans “betterthan ever.” I don’t think anyone anticipated that this would manifestin little more than bigger, better drive-thrus, but you know, downhere, we take what we can get.

All for now, I’m off to the Superdome — this time in sensible shoes.

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