Tamia turns in superb Essence Festival debut to make a claim for a big comeback

Few artists have the ability to take a few years off from the game and return to find an audience as ready to take her back as Tamia. The neo-soul and R&B songstress earned her two time slots and more at her first-ever Essence Fest appearance July 7.

The crowd at the McDonald’s Superlounge shuffled only slightly between Luke James’ opener and Tamia’s two back-to-back slots, perhaps only becoming more crowded before the bombshell singer appeared. Tamia wore a draped white dress and her hair loose and wavy, an easy foil to her two back-up singers in sleek black outfits.

“Can you rock like this?” she teased, playing to the audience at the front rows.

Tamia first broke out in the mid-1990s and released a string of well-received R&B albums before breaking things off with Elektra Records and creating her own label in 2005. Since then, Tamia has released three new albums with her own Plus 1 Music Group, most recently with last year’s “Beautiful Surprise” after nearly six years out of the limelight.

The ballad-heavy set was accented by the talent not only from Tamia but also from her band, and it was obvious the group has a blast onstage together.

“They could sing anything with me,” Tamia said, motioning to the two back-up singers, after tying a knot on “Mr. Cool.”

Later, during “You Put a Move On My Heart,” Tamia singled out her guitar player to have a kind of sing-off, though the guitarist was mimicking her voice with the instrument to impressive effect.

During “Almost,” the crowd had the first real opportunity to lend its voice, and Tamia visually got a kick out of the experience. With a wide smile, she offered the next musical treat.

“I call this part ‘memory lane,'” Tamia said. “So if you were with me from the beginning, you should recognize this.”

She nailed the vocals on “Never Gonna Let You Go,” “Smile” and “Making Live Poetry.”

Technically a dynamite singer, Tamia planted seeds of greatness throughout the set, never totally going bananas on any particular notes or lyrics. It seems she might have been saving the best for last, however, because as she wrapped up her 2001 single“Stranger in My House,” Tamia kneeled as she offered the final notes in a hauntingly beautiful delivery that gave me chills.

Tamia exited quickly, knowing full well the show must go on one more time at Essence Fest that night.

Judging by the line outside the door on my way out, there are still an awful lot of people ready to see her make a big return.