janet-jackson_web.jpgNEW ORLEANS (AP) — Janet Jackson enthralled the Essence Music Festival audience Friday, July 2, kept them on their feet for more than two hours, and reminded fans why seeing her in concert was worth waiting two years.

From the opening notes of “The Pleasure Principle” to “Control” to “Rhythm Nation,” the Grammy Award-winning singer enticed, teased, and brought her fans on a journey through her No. 1 hits.

“She was unbelievable,” said Ed Downs of Miami. “It was definitely worth the wait. I’m happy to see her make a comeback. It was impressive.”

Jackson marked her return by closing the festival’s first night inside the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. It was her first time at the festival, which ran through Sunday, July 4.

Former NBA player Anfernee Hardaway called Jackson’s performance “absolutely perfect,” and said no one could tell she had been off the concert circuit for any length of time.

“She definitely gets better with age,” he said, smiling.

Fans got a glimpse of Jackson’s new, sassy, short-cropped hair and her signature, shapely figure on the finale show of American Idol where she rocked classics like “Again” and “Nasty” and her latest release, “Nothing,” from the soundtrack of the movie, Why Did I Get Married Too?, which she also starred in.

But near the end of her Essence performance, fans were treated with even more as she depicted a risque, S&M scene with a male participant from the audience, whose hands and arms were strapped into a straight jacket as Jackson — in a flesh-toned body suit — worked him over, whip in hand.

He mouthed, “Thank you,” and couldn’t take his eyes off her, getting roars of approval, looks of envy and applause from the crowd.

“I loved it,” said Rose Ellerbee of New York. “It was one of the hottest shows I've seen and then she brought back so many memories. She didn’t lose a beat.”

Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., was as excited as anyone to hear Jackson in person. She said festival organizers had invited Jackson numerous times during the last 15 years, and this year she finally accepted.

“Prayer works,” Ebanks said laughing.

The festival celebrated the magazine’s 40th anniversary this year, and Ebanks said they wanted to do so by putting the spotlight on strong, powerful female artists. In addition to Jackson, the lineup included Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Monica, Keri Hilson, Chrisette Michele, Lalah Hathaway, Melanie Fiona, Estelle, Ledisi, Laura Izibor and New Orleans’ own Irma Thomas.

“It means a great deal for me to be in the company of such wonderful women, women who I have the pleasure of knowing personally,” Jackson said in an interview before her performance. “I'm especially honored to be able to play on a stage that also hosts Gladys Knight. She watched me grow up and I remember her being around the Motown family when I was a kid. It’s definitely an honor.”

Jackson, 44, said she has wanted to come to the festival previously, but a jam-packed schedule didn't allow it.

“It didn’t really permit me this time either, but because I really wanted to do it, we’ve worked it in,” she said.

Photo: Janet Jackson