A dull gray sky hangs low on this big Saturday night -- the evening of the annual Budweiser Superfest -- as dolled-up folks stream through the gates of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Some street vendors hawk $5 T-shirts. Hungry fans can belly up to a table where a gentleman sells grilled chicken on a skewer. Stressed fans can breathe deeply and inhale the aroma of incense.
But on this night that brings Montell Jordan, Mary J. Blige, TLC, Boyz II Men, Patti LaBelle and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly to the stage, the man destined to claim more than his share of the wealth is the fella with the umbrellas. The rain is imminent. And he knows it.
"Save that hair now, baby. You better save your hair now," he yells.
And oh my, such hair there is.
Grand shellacked plumage. Towering cones of teased tresses. Tiny doorknobs knotted from silken locks. Curls gelled into submission. Hair sculpted into concentric circles. Hair that is fried, dyed, bleached, bought, braided, twisted and tormented.
How done the 'do to a great extent reflects which act folks are coming to see.
Modena Mitchell lives just around the corner from RFK, and she walked over for only one reason: Miss Patti. "I knew her when she was Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles. I'd go anywhere to see Patti." But what about all these other performers? "Oh, I'd go through torture," Mitchell says. "I'll put up with them to see Patti."
Although Mitchell doesn't have gravity-defying, electrified Patti hair, she has been dipping into the gel supply. The style? Cut close, slicked down, not moving.
Others like Cynthia Gibson of Suitland are playing it neutral. She's here to see everyone, she says. And so she has nonpartisan hair. Clipped short. Curled away from her face.
Of course, this evening isn't solely about hair. It's about fashion and style and letting folks know that you understand both. (Oh yeah, it's about music, too.) After all, the evening begins at 5 and goes on past midnight. That's a lot of sashaying time. A diligent diva could make more than a dozen passes around the stadium without much effort.
Except, perhaps, for Renatta Copeland of Washington. She's dressed in gold. From head to toe. Her blouse is gold, her skirt, her shoes, the jewelry, the purse, even her eye shadow. And she wasn't even planning on coming to the Superfest. She received a last-minute invitation. Consider the possibilities if she'd had time to plan.
From a distance it looks as though her gold ensemble might be made of leather. But no, up close and hands on, it's more likely laminated rayon, cotton or polyester. She's not sure which. She simply knows that "it's hot." Think temperature and attitude. Both explain why Copeland is standing and waiting and not strolling and looking.
Strolling at the Superfest is not for the faint of heart or tender of feet. Although cowboy boots on men and women make a strong showing, the shoe of choice for women is the high-heeled, strappy sandal. The slinkier the better. Finding a sandal held on by a thin whip of dental floss would be akin to reaching shoe nirvana. Many women come close. Lashonea Taylor of Temple Hills wears black spindle-heeled sandals. Only a few delicate straps hold them onto her feet.
"I bought them for tonight," says Taylor, a big Maze fan. "I just hope no one else here has them on."
Taylor is walking across the field, which has been covered -- unevenly -- with plastic. She is not teetering. She's got a little stroll going, a little hip sway even. Do not attempt to tell Taylor anything. However, some folks do require a little talking to. What's up with those ladies squeezed into halters by any means necessary? What makes those fellas think that someone wants to see their naked potbellies and tufts of hair from private places that should never see the light of day?
With discretion thrown to the wind and a break in the music, everybody strolls. Then the three members of TLC take the stage and everybody stops and screams. Girls from the audience who think they're T-Boz or Left Eye or Chilli appear as if out of nowhere. They're wearing oversize jeans held up by thick belts. Their T-shirts are tight and cropped. And they have fresh-from-the-salon hair that can stand up to humidity because it has been blow-dried bone straight. They mouth the words "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and dance for all they're worth, as if a talent scout might be eyeing them from the audience.
But while everyone else stands and grooves, Iris Braxton and Carmelita Leftwich, both of Washington, sit and watch. Impatiently.
"Nobody else has to be here, just Frankie," says Braxton. "I wish these other people would go home."
She almost gets her wish. Because just after TLC leaves the stage and everyone waits for the Boyz to come on, the sky opens up and the rains begin. Slowly at first, so folks are lulled into thinking they can just wait it out under the umbrellas they smartly brought. But no. The rain gets hard and fast and starts blowing sideways, and soon the entire stadium is in a frenzy as folks race for the nearest overhang. And oh, the hair.
Dripping and flat. Frizzing and flopping. It is not a pretty sight. Oh sure, the braids survive and so do the hair sculptures. But gone are the curls and the flips. The French twists have untwisted. The exploding mall hair has been defused. And one poor little child -- her press-and-curl ponytail has started to go back to naps.
The men fare far better in the downpour. Most have sleekly shaved heads or dreadlocks. A few who have been caught in a '70s time warp sport big shaggy Afros or cornrows. Those dressed in linen trousers and sport shirts emerge from the rain unscathed. What's a little water and a few wrinkles to linen? But those in silk short sets and coordinating separates look bedraggled. Shocked. Downright hurt.
"Every year, it does this," grumbles one fellow to no one in particular.
Soon the rains subside. A couple of guys on the field start dancing to recorded music, and they are rewarded with cheers from the crowd. The show goes on.
Young kids and some older ones, too, shriek and sway when the Boyz come on stage in matching white pants and shirts. They're ready with a repertoire of hit songs and standard repartee. (After all, a concert wouldn't be complete without some performer demanding that the audience say, "Yo!") Groupies in the stands along the side try to talk or press their way onto the field just to get closer to the Boyz.
After another pause and more strolling, LaBelle comes out shouting, decked out in red sequins. Maze featuring Frankie Beverly is the group that seems to cut across the generations. And eventually the audience does indeed say, "Yo!"
As it gets late, people begin making their way to cars or to the Metro. A few last halfhearted sprinkles fall. Nothing to worry about. One gentleman sings to himself -- and anyone else in earshot -- as he waits for his train. Two women examine their newly purchased souvenir T-shirts. Another girl admits to her obsession: "I have a shirt from every concert I've ever been to."
A woman reaches up with both hands, smooths down her wan curls and pulls her chestnut-brown hair off her face and into a makeshift ponytail. Her 'do is finished. And the evening is over. CAPTION: Hey, it doesn't mess up his hairdo: Music fans cool off at RFK Stadium during a half-hour downpour at the Budweiser Superfest. JUMP CAPTION: Dancer Michael Brown helps whip up the crowd at Superfest.