(The Root) — If the Essence Music Festival schedule had a time frame, no one told the Queen of Soul. Taking the stage at 10:30 p.m. Sunday at the Superdome in New Orleans, Aretha Franklin may not have been the closing Essence Music Festival 2012 act (Chaka Khan had that honor), but she delivered a set worthy of just that, in length and grandeur.
Backed by a full orchestra and five background singers, Franklin, dressed in a peach gown, opened her set with classics like "Rock Steady" and "Day Dreaming."
"Good to be back in New Orleans," Franklin told the crowd. "I came a long way to be with you; I drove for two days."
Classics like "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" and "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" followed, the latter performance boasting four female dancers draped in black dresses with red gloves, dancing Sparkle-inspired choreography. As Franklin two-stepped offstage for a costume change into a green dress accented with large crystals, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Essence Editor-in-Chief Constance C.R. White, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks presented the Queen with a plaque celebrating her successful career and a key to the city.
When Franklin returned, she sat down at a piano to play "I Will Always Love You" in tribute to the late Whitney Houston. Later, as her cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" wafted through the Superdome, Franklin expressed a small discomfort.
"Please turn the air down on the stage so I don't have to leave the stage," she warned from behind the ivory keys.
Wrapping up her set with a rousing version of Beverly Crawford's "It's About Time for a Miracle," featuring a full choir and a duet with Bishop Paul S. Morton, Franklin thanked fans by personally handing out stuffed animals and gift bags throughout the crowd.
Chaka Khan followed, wowing the audience with her svelte frame in a sequined black top, tight pants, heels and her signature bouncy curls. After a slideshow acknowledging Houston, Vesta Williams, Nick Ashford and others in black music who have passed away, Khan rolled through her hits like "Stay" and "I'm Every Woman" and made the best of her late set.
Elsewhere in the festival's Superlounges, Melanie Fiona, Carl Thomas and Eve, along with newcomers Bridget Kelly and Luke James, showed their artistic chops with melodies, airy falsettos and slick rhymes.
As the crowd trickled out of the storied Superdome, it was clear that though everyone was exhausted, the Essence Music Festival is one of the premier places to experience authentic black music in America.
Hillary Crosley is The Root's New York bureau chief.