NEW YORK CITY -- They say this city never sleeps, and apparently, neither does The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, who hit the stage at Irving Plaza in the wee hours of Saturday morning to conduct the pick-up band of a lifetime.
The funky bandleader and an all-star cast, which included R&B singer Chaka Khan and Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, didn't leave again until breakfast.
Like a funked-up, freaked-out incarnation of Duke Ellington, The Artist came to lead a special jam session featuring Khan of Rufus fame and Graham, who in addition to Sly and the Family Stone played in his own group, Graham Central Station. As the dark morning hours wore on, The Artist's band New Power Generation laid down the grooves while he and his special guests ran through a collection of their best-known songs and hardly any of his.
The show didn't get going until 2:55 a.m., and before it was over, the tireless city was already well into a new day and jazz guitarist George Benson and rapper Doug E. Fresh had made special cameo appearances with the already star-studded ensemble.
"The combination of Chaka Khan and The Artist was like a dream come true," said Julie Mardin, a fine-art photographer from New York. "They combined so many different styles -- funk, rap, soul -- it was amazing."
Intended as a unique musical event -- a late-night Manhattan club date with The Artist and his pals -- a number of musicians were in the house, including Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan, ex-Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and pop songstress Joan Osborne, as well as actors Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez and Stephanie Mills.
Paying tribute to Larry Graham's past, New Power Generation opened the show by playing an extended version of Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again" with Graham on vocals and bass, Khan on keyboards and The Artist on guitar. They segued into The Artist laying a rap on the crowd, then seamlessly flowed into Sly's "Everyday People," which turned into a sing-along.
The Artist looked genuinely pleased as the crowd cheered, perhaps thanking the former Prince and his guests for having resurrected the tune that most recently had been used as the theme for a TV commercial campaign for an auto company.
Meanwhile, The Artist was settling in for a long show ahead. "Call the baby sitter. I mean it, people," he advised time and again, as the tunes kept coming.
Looking every bit the glitzy performer in his silver lamé pajama-style leisure suit, the ex-Prince took over Khan's position on keyboards as she moved to center stage to perform the ballad "Sweet Thing."
She sported a tightly tailored fuchsia jacket and long, black skirt with a sexy slit that ran far up her thigh. Every inch the diva, she worked her way into "Tell Me Something Good," the biggest hit single from her tenure as lead singer with the '70s funk band Rufus. This classic juiced the crowd and then turned into yet another feel-good exercise in audience call-and-response.
It was deep into the hour of 4 a.m. when The Artist's mate, Mayte, slithered out onstage to shake her stuff. "Go Mayte! Go Mayte!" chanted the crowd, as she undulated around her man. He responded by leading the band into a funky hip-shaker that spotlighted The Artist on vocals and keyboards.
Throughout the night, people were coming and going from the stage as if they'd all been invited to one big party.
In the final stretch, as the sky turned a lighter shade of purple, The Artist introduced Benson, who rocked out on guitar as Fresh came front and center. The rapper traded vocal phrases with Benson's guitar and The Artist, who, at this point, was playing a thumb-poppin' bass.
"Who rocks the hardest? The Artist rocks the hardest!" rapped Fresh as the clock wound round to 5 a.m., and few in the still-jammed house would deny it.
The proof was in the sunshine breaking over the horizon.