How Should We Remember Prince?

A dispatch from The Official Prince Tribute in Minnesota

By Michaelangelo Matos

To be in the Twin Cities in the six months since Prince died is to be confronted with his life at nearly every turn. For weeks afterward, it had become requisite to wear purple in tribute, and it was hard for much time to pass on a busy street without hearing his music. It’s true that Minneapolitans have cleaved hard to Prince’s legend for most of the time he was making it, but this was intensified, an ongoing wake, trailing off from the instantly storied multi-night block party at First Avenue, the club featured in his film Purple Rain.

Though I’ve encountered occasional dissent (“This is all you’re ever going to hear about again around here,” complained a writer of my acquaintance), in Minneapolis Prince has long been, effectively, the cultural commonplace. That remained true judging from the crowds at both the first night of The Revolution’s reunion stand at First Avenue in September and last night’s Official Prince Tribute (the actual name of the show), a multi-act blowout at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, where Prince played five times between 2001 and 2004. Minnesota’s pretty damn white, and so were the crowds. (This tends to alarm out-of-town Prince fans, especially nonwhite ones. Explaining that the state has actually grown far more diverse in the last 30 years usually just elicits rapid blinking.) But there’s never any doubting the veracity and fervor of the Twin Cities’ love for Prince.

It’s a good thing, because at Xcel, that love — and Minnesotans’ propensity for politeness at all costs, through gritted teeth if necessary — would be tested at length. Though it boasted an all-star billing, much of the Official Prince Tribute’s star power canceled at the last minute, with most fans not finding out that both Christina Aguilera and John Mayer had dropped out — and that they’d been replaced by professional pop nonentities Nicole Scherzinger and Jessie J — until they were walking into the venue.

The evening opened at 7:30 p.m. sharp with a short film, one of a few shown, this one about Prince’s philanthropic efforts, with testimonials from Geoffrey Canada, Van Jones, Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, and Janelle Monáe. After a brief video hello from President Obama, St. Paul R&B mainstays Mint Condition came out and romped through “America,” “D.M.S.R.,” and “When Doves Cry.” On the latter, lead singer Stokley Williams gave the coda his all, while lead guitarist Homer O’Dell made hay with not just Prince’s solo but the song’s entire outro. With The Time nailing “The Bird” and “Jungle Love” with practiced flair, Morris Day resplendent in a mustard suit and guitarist Jellybean Johnson in a glittering jacket, it promised to be a snappy, professional night.

After The Time, Bobby Z, the drummer from The Revolution, strode onstage and bantered away: “On behalf of The Revolution, we are sorry we can’t be here.” Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, it transpired, were working on the music for a new TV show (previously agreed-upon work, presumably). He talked engagingly about seeing Prince for the first time: “He was half giving me a look and half not looking at me. But I broke him down with laughter — and, boy, did he love laughter.” Later he added, “They say Leonardo da Vinci could paint with one hand and write a letter with another. That was Prince. They’re going to be arguing about what Prince did and meant for thousands of years.”

After some clips of the man in action, Bobby said, “He loved musicians from here.” That’s when we met the evening’s house band, The New Power Generation (NPG), one of the longest running of Prince’s bands. Led by center-stage keyboardist Morris Hayes, the group also includes bassist Sonny Thompson — one of Prince’s local idols as a young player — while drummer Michael Bland was in his early twenties when he joined in the early ’90s; they were joined by guitarist Donna Grantis of 3rd Eye Girl (3EG), the last group Prince cultivated.

The band was fine — tight, adaptable, grooving. But the programming itself became a meandering mess. Suddenly, instead of the kind of super-sharp moves that Prince hammered into his colleagues, we got not simply an unfocused succession of singers whose segments largely could (should) have been chopped in half, but one that dragged on for nearly five hours after the start time, interrupted by a sole 25-minute intermission. Even a real Prince show would have flagged at that length.

To their immense credit, The NPG stayed lively throughout. Their main frontperson was André Cymone, Prince’s teenage best friend and the bassist for the first incarnation of his touring band, which would become The Revolution not long after Cymone left. André’s falsetto and scream aren’t Prince’s, but they do the job nicely, and he was the night’s key clutch player, singing “Uptown” (joined, in a rich arrangement, by a horn section), “The Ladder,” “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (which Cymone joined in late, after being called on by Hayes, as if he had either missed a cue or didn’t receive one before the band began), “Computer Blue,” “Gett Off,” and “Controversy.”

The problem is that he sang them across three hours. Cymone alternated with a number of longtime local Prince associates: Liv Warfield (who got the screams exactly right on “Hot Thing”), Shelby J. (bald, in a very Labelle silver-and-black outfit, growling “Erotic City,” “Musicology,” and the 3EG song “Pretzelbodylogic”), Marva King (whose voice was mostly swallowed by the arena during “Kiss,” though later she authoritatively commandeered a shortened “I Would Die 4 U”), and Kip Blackshire (“Anotherloverholenyohead”), among others. (The latter three were all in various NPG lineups; Prince produced Warfield.) Judith Hill, backup singer to the stars and a contestant on The Voice who was with Prince on the flight that took an emergency landing the weekend before he died, offered up a histrionic version of “The Cross” in a gold gown before sitting at a piano for “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” that started with an appealing modesty before detouring into the usual overstatement.

Nothing wrong with the late guest of honor’s home folks showing out. That’s what a tribute show is, a lot of the time — especially for someone with an incontestable impact on local music and local musicians, never mind those of the world. (We got a little of this, too, during a three-song set by Portuguese fado singer Ana Moura, a personal favorite of Prince’s, who did two in her native language and a husky but otherwise colorless “Little Red Corvette.”) It even explains why Prince’s sister, Tyka Nelson, did a mercifully short, deeply pitchy a cappella number.

But most tribute shows limit their participants to a song or two so the evening actually has an arc to it. Three years ago, at Carnegie Hall, a Roots-backed Prince tribute included more than 20 acts in a little over two hours; The Revolution’s show, while a more compact showcase, still made room for a handful of features. The Official Prince Tribute, to its detriment, observed no such limitations — except when it really should have. Bilal, for instance, aced his cameos at the aforementioned Carnegie Hall show and the Revolution reunion; here he tore up “The Beautiful Ones” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and made you wonder why he didn’t just sing half the show.

Yet the Official Prince Tribute’s formlessness had certain fascinations of its own. For one thing, we witnessed just how fraught Prince’s relationship with hip-hop truly was. The band began “Pop Life” — cool. Suddenly someone began hoarsely shouting, “Is the party up in here?!” over and over for two-thirds of it, like a DJ Khaled understudy. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Doug E. Fresh: hip-hop pioneer, beatboxer extraordinaire, and, on this occasion, utter earsore. Still, at least he made “La Di Da Di” (which he performed around hour four), a genuine hip-hop classic. Tony Mosley, a.k.a. Tony M, on the other hand, is the auteur behind “Jughead,” the rap song everyone skips on Diamonds and Pearls. Wearing a light blue outfit that resembled pajamas, Mosley offered his unique microphone stylings on a version of “Sexy MF,” joined on keyboards by old NPG hand Tommy Barbarella (who sat in much of the night afterward). It had to be awkward for Tony M when, a half-hour later, Doug E. Fresh boasted into the mic of being “the only hip-hop artist Prince ever rocked with.”

Mosley wasn’t the only performer in sleepwear. That dubious co-honor went to Jessie J, who arrived in a jacket and pants that resembled Hugh Hefner’s ever-present velvet robe. Dancing gawkily, she oversold “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and dueted with Kip Blackshire on “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Arriving deep into the night (she came out at 11:44 p.m.), she seemed an afterthought even as she was going. Her fellow replacement, Nicole Scherzinger, is less individual a performer than Jessie J: Nicole just doesn’t have the same overbearing theater-kid moxie. But clad in white satin bell-bottoms and jacket, Scherzinger, the former frontwoman of The Pussycat Dolls — a group whose claim to fame is that they evolved from a burlesque troupe — came out to do the most suitable song possible: Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl.” And she finished off with the least suitable: “Baby, I’m a Star.” Scherzinger even wrote her own punch line, throwing in a “That’s right!” after “But honey, I’m rich — on personality.”

With serious stars in short supply it fell to the two biggest to help goose the long night, an uphill battle for anyone. Chaka Khan entered with “Betcha,” from her 1998 album Come 2 My House; guess who produced (and titled) that one? She veered into her own “Sweet Thing” before Stevie Wonder joined her to reprise his own harmonica part from her 1984 remake of “I Feel for You,” from Prince’s self-titled second album, and unlike her summer 2015 performance in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Khan actually sang more than one verse and chorus. (She disdained the record upon release, telling Smash Hits: “So now I do this song and I put rapping on it, which is really the pits. The lowest thing you can do from an artist’s standpoint.”) Even better, the two of them went to work on “1999,” with Stevie singing the low-baritone lines that went to Dez Dickerson in the original.

Stevie wouldn’t return for a couple more hours, and when he did it was on the arm of American Idol alum Tori Kelly; they did “Take Me With U” together, before Stevie segued into a stirring “Raspberry Beret.” “As much as you love him, he loved you even more,” Stevie told the audience, adding, in reference to recent Trumpian insanity: “We’re dealing with a lot of craziness in this country. He had a lot of love for the woman, and for every human being.” Then he sang Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” because the occasion seemed to call for it, and “Superstition,” because he’s Stevie Wonder and if you book him that’s what he does.

Finally, at a quarter past midnight, The NPG returned for an encore: “Purple Rain,” of course. Instead of bringing up Bilal or Jessie J or any of the other guests, we heard Prince sing it — disembodied, from a live performance. On this oft-strange night, little was as odd as watching Stevie Wonder and Marva King standing in the middle of the stage, microphone in hand, not singing while a recording of the late tributee’s voice floated overhead. Intentionally or not, the message was clear: We’re going to miss Prince even more than we knew.