NEW ORLEANS (AP) — R&B crooner Maxwell's sweet falsetto closed out Friday night's Essence Festival concert series in the Superdome that also featured performances by Brandy, LL Cool J and Jill Scott.
As the opening strands of "Sumthin, Sumthin," wafted through the arena, applause from the crowd swelled when Maxwell took the stage in a light-colored suit and tie.
His return performance to the festival's main stage included his hits "Lifetime," ''This Woman's Work," ''Simply Beautiful," and his latest duet with singer Alicia Keys, "Fire We Make."
In an interview before his set, Maxwell told The Associated Press that he's known Keys since she was 15. "She signed with Columbia (Records) alongside of me," he recalled. "We've always stayed in touch throughout the years and she called about a song to ask me if I'd like to do it with her. I told her, 'Anything you want.' She's one of the classiest people I've ever met. It was a no-brainer and the song is really cool."
Maxwell said the pair is planning to work another project. "We're gonna do a kind of Tammy Terrell-Marvin Gaye thing. We're working on it now."
He said once both of their schedules are freed up, they will get together on that project and then "combine and join forces for a mega-tour."
When Maxwell sang his current song with Keys, she appeared on a screen singing her verse along with him. At the end of the performance, he said, "Thank you Alicia Keys, wherever you are!"
Earlier he'd said she would make an appearance in spirit, fulfilling that something extra for the fans.
Maxwell said he was humbled by the festival's repeat invitations to perform.
"It's incredible to be here, to still be here," he said, adding that he's grateful fans respond favorably to his music.
"My standards are pretty high. I didn't sell out in any way, shape or form the soul of the music. I don't think every song I've written is the greatest song in the world, but I put a concerted effort into maintaining a level of dignity within the music, and I think that comes through," he said.
Maxwell said "Summers," the sequel to 2009's "BLACKsummers night," should be released in about four months. "There may be some collaborations but I can't really get into that right now," he said.
He said he hoped fans appreciate the work. "I hope it gets got," he said, laughing. "I always like to surprise people in terms of expectations. It's going to be what it is. I do what I do, and it's from the heart. If there are hits as a result, then the hits are just gravy on the 'tatoes."
The festival's first full day of free empowerment seminars in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center began with Steve Harvey hosting a live showing of "Family Feud," followed by discussions on health and wellness and relationships.
Panel discussions included insights from several celebrities, including actors Laz Alonso and Niecy Nash, and reality TV stars Kenya Moore of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," Shaunie O'Neal of "Basketball Wives," R&B singer Monifah of "R&B Divas" and Roble Ali of "Chef Roble and Co."
An afternoon thunderstorm dumped several inches of rain on the metro New Orleans area but did nothing to stop fans from enjoying all the festival had to offer. Thousands poured into the convention center's daytime activities and were in the seats when Brandy kicked off the concerts at the Superdome.
LL Cool J had the audience on its feet, especially when he rocked his hits "Rock the Bells" and "Mama (said Knock You Out)" and when he brought in EPMD to perform "Rampage" with him.
After his set, the rapper said having an opportunity to return to the Essence stage was a thrill.
"Even though it's been years, it's always fun to share the talent and do what I do. This is my first love," the rapper-actor said.
"I came to have a great time, and my job is to give them 1,000 percent. I definitely need the crowd though. But I know where I am. I'm at Essence. Still, we loosened them up a little bit. We loosened them up," he said, smiling.
Jill Scott followed his set with renditions of most fan favorites including "A Long Walk," ''Hate On Me," ''It's Love" and "Blessed."
The festival continues Saturday.