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Prince channels James Brown at marathon SXSW show

Is it possible for the best guitarist in the world to put on a mind-blowingly awesome show… without touching a guitar? Yes, as Saturday night Prince led his 20-piece band through three hours of music (including quite a few covers and a couple hits), yet the Purple One left all the guitar duties to 3rd Eye Girl’s Donna Grantis and Ida Nielsen. Instead he focused on singing, dancing, a little organ soloing, joking, and a lot of directing, particularly to call out solos for the 10 horn players and three percussionists. With the big band and his never ending energy, he has mastered the art of being James Brown.

While part of his band sauntered onto the stage, the horn section entered through the crowd (wearing ‘spirit hoodies’ no less) in a NOLA-style march to the stage. And then Prince came on, using a jewel encrusted walking stick to help direct the band—a vision of a purple Willy Wonka. There were a few hits early; they performed “1999” amid a shower of confetti, and did “Purple Rain” before the first encore. “You’ve heard of Five-Hour Energy?” the tireless Prince asked the crowd. “Well, ‘Eleven-Hour Energy’ is my middle name.”

And it was awesome. The horns were arranged expertly, and added a new dimension to Prince’s sound. The set list featured three Jackson songs (Michael’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” Janet’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” and the Jackson Five’s “Dancing Machine”) along with tunes by Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown.

Prince in his spirit hood at SXSW. (Photo by Brian Beck)

A little Minnesota pride was in effect as well. “They called our people and said they wanted some funk in Austin,” he told the elated crowd. “We’re gonna show you how we do it in Minneapolis.” The show was at La Zona Rosa, a 1,300 seat club, and paid for and sponsored by Samsung Galaxy—the newest cell phone that is challenging Apple’s iPhone. Which was somewhat ironic, given P’s penchant for banning electronic devices from his shows or even when the press meets him for interviews. But even multiple messages pre-show over the PA warning patrons to put away their phones didn’t stop most in the crowd from snapping a few clandestine pics.

In a night filled with engaging banter from the stage, Prince delivered his best line before one of the six encores: “Don’t make me hurt you. You know how many hits I got?” And while he never got around to most of them, he did include several made famous by his numerous protégés, like the Time’s “The Bird,” “Jungle Love,” and “Cool”; Sheila E’s “Glamorous Life”; and the duet he cut with Sheena Easton for Sign ‘O’ the Times, “You Got The Look.”

It was impossible not to leave completely awestruck, and hopefully it was the precursor to a year of more shows—especially since Prince hasn’t released an album in the U.S. since 2009, and has only visited a limited run of six U.S. cities to host his “Welcome 2” tour the past few years.

All week at SXSW the talk was of the Prince concert—and especially how to score tickets. I didn’t have mine until a few hours before the show, but then ended up watching in a VIP area, standing between Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and actors Michael K. Williams and Felicia Pearson (Omar and Snoop from the Wire). And whether you were in the VIP section or the back of the club, Prince’s energy, songs, band, and performance were off the charts. SXSW is a conference with over 2,000 bands coming to town to impress, but on Saturday night none could compare to the impression left by our Purple Yoda himself.

—Jim McGuinn

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