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Jazz Fest: Eric Benét Delivers Sweaty, Sultry Set

Presence of his fiancée, actress Halle Berry, elicited more audience buzz than R&B singer did.

[Editor's Note: A crew of writers and photographers has been in New Orleans to provide daily coverage of this year's Jazz & Heritage Festival, which began April 28 and concluded Sunday. Our staff was on the Fair Grounds, in the clubs and on the streets to capture what's unique about one of the world's great musical and cultural extravaganzas. Click here to access our complete coverage of the event.]

Correspondent Elita Bradley reports:

NEW ORLEANS — R&B crooner Eric Benét turned in a sweaty, sultry set of tunes Saturday afternoon at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, despite some sound difficulties and one Berry beautiful distraction.

Even as Benét took the stage, the crowd was buzzing about the unexpected presence of Benét's fiancée, actress Halle Berry, who sat mostly unaccompanied at the side of the stage behind a semi-sheer screen.

"Welcome to a day in the life, y'all," the handsome, dreadlocked Benét told the vibrant crowd that was preponderantly women who seemed intent on giving Berry a little healthy competition.

Benét got the crowd grooving with "Loving Your Best Friend" (RealAudio excerpt), a song off his gold-selling 1999 CD, A Day in the Life, which he co-wrote with Fugees rapper Wyclef Jean. He then segued into "Femininity," a sexy song that pays tribute to women, from his debut CD, 1997's True to Myself.

During "Femininity," Benét, barefoot and wearing a peach-colored dashiki and what seemed to be green suede pants — suede not exactly being a common first choice for Jazz Fest wear — sat on the edge of the stage and reached out to the women near the front as he riffed with such lines as, "Get out of bed/ It's OK if you don't have no clothes on/ Can I please taste your femininity?"

"I hope I didn't get too explicit for y'all," he said as the women went wild.

His sexy lyrics took a more serious turn on "Spend My Life With You" (RealAudio excerpt), his

Grammy-nominated duet with Tamia.

"Thanks for making this next song #1," he said by way of introduction. "A lot of people use this at their weddings, and that makes me very happy." Benét's backup singer Barbara Wilson filled in for Tamia onstage, while Berry mouthed the words in the wings.

Sound problems — dropped vocals, feedback, static and un-amped instruments — cropped up throughout the set, particularly during the Caribbean-flavored "Why You Follow Me."

Benét took the sound difficulties in stride at first. He introduced "Spiritual Thang" saying, "Have you ever had a relationship that felt like God put that person in your life, that the love you have is just completely in synch with each other?" Then, glancing briefly at a grinning Berry, he said, "Well, I've kinda got that going on in my life right now."

But as the sound kept dropping out during the song, Benét left the stage for nearly 20 minutes, leaving his seven-piece band to introduce themselves and fill the time with snippets of old-school jams, such as Parliament's "We Want the Funk" and the O'Jays' "Money, Money, Money."

With only six minutes left in his set, Benét finally returned to the stage to cap off the song. In lieu of explaining why he left the stage, Benét simply told the audience to "keep God first in your life and stay true to yourself."

"I saw him perform a few years ago, and he just didn't have any stage presence," Jesse Quiet, 38, of New Orleans said. "He's gotten a lot better now, though. He really seems to be feelin' the audience. Maybe Halle had something to do with that."

Berry, who became engaged to Benét in August, inspired more audience conversation than the singer did. Early into the performance, one young woman was overheard asking her friend about the actress.

"Where is she? What is she wearing?" she said, as they stood on tiptoe to try to catch a peek at Berry, who was wearing lightly tinted glasses and a black tank dress.

Benét, who recently opened a series of dates for soul singer Brian McKnight, is working on a follow-up to A Day in the Life.