In an evening meant to pay tribute to our state’s reigning Prince, what transpired was actually a celebration of our scene’s queen.
As the most high-profile act on the bill for the Purple Rain tribute at the Fitzgerald Theater, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that Queen Lizzo—the only title for her that feels appropriate right now—managed to steal the show. But what played out during the 45-minute concert was much larger, more provocative, and jaw-dropping than any of the night’s stars could have planned.
The evening started out modestly, with the four members of Heiruspecs’ live band (DeVon Gray, Josh Peterson, Peter Leggett, and Sean McPherson) working up a very Roots-inspired hip-hop groove and inviting Ashley DuBose out to sing a laid-back version of “When Doves Cry.”
By the second song, however, the energy had already shifted dramatically. From the moment Tickle Torture, a.k.a. sex-pop exhibitionist Elliott Kozel, paraded out in Barb Abney’s signature gold jacket, a gold purse, a black corset, and knee-high fishnet tights to sing the Appollonia Six single “Sex Shooter,” ripples of giggles and looks of disbelief started making their way throughout the aisles of the theater. And when Kozel and his gold body paint-splattered back-up dancers started grinding on one another and shooting gigantic confetti cannons out into the room, the crowd had no choice but to look on with big, goofy grins of dismay and delight.
It was both ridiculous and oh so satisfying to gaze out across the red velvet seats and decadent embellishments of the Fitzgerald Theater—a venue that has become synonymous with Garrison Keillor and the stoic, subtle Midwestern humor of his show A Prairie Home Companion—as Tickle Torture twerked, twirled, and sang his heart out, and the subversive contrast of the fancy setting and his (almost literally) balls-out performance would have made early-’80s Prince proud. And possibly sent 2015-era Prince running for the door.
That golden spectacle was followed up by two incredible classy, strong covers by Maurice Jacox, who lent his tender touch to “Take Me With You” and then cranked it up a notch for the soulful “I Would Die For You.” Tickle Torture came back to ratchet through the Time’s “Jungle Love” with a little cameo from David Campbell (who played the part of Morris Day’s movie sidekick, Jermone). And afterwards, DuBose returned to the stage to the opening strains of “Purple Rain” and worked through the first few simmering verses alone, then brought out Lizzo to duet during the song’s big crescendo and finale.
Given the crowd’s reaction to Lizzo’s first appearance on stage, it was clear that the room was hungry for more from the breakout star. So when DeVon Gray leaned over to his microphone to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back to the stage, Lizzo,” the anticipation and excitement was palpable. And when Gray started plucking out those familiar repeated piano chords of “The Beautiful Ones,” the purple spotlit-room felt positively radiant.
(At this point I feel it necessary to point out some bias and some context. One of my all-time favorite and most-watched videos of all time is easily Beyoncé’s performance of “The Beautiful Ones” and Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” from the 2011 Glastonbury festival. And as I was watching the performance last night, it was impressive not only because Lizzo was clearly channeling and interpreting Beyoncé’s version but because she captured the spirit of it so flawlessly.)
So anyway, about that performance: As soon as Lizzo started singing the song, which she accentuated by pushing, shoving, and dancing around a very mannequin-esque male model that she trotted out on stage, it became clear to both her and the audience that her beautiful strapless purple dress was slowly coming unzipped. If it had been any other performer, this stubborn zipper and flimsy fabric might have totally unraveled the entire show, but Lizzo seemed to accept her wardrobe malfunction as a gift, holding her gown to her chest as she sang her heart out. Not only was every note timed perfectly and every vocal run accentuated with an aching sigh or wail, but the added drama of the slowly unzipping dress and Lizzo’s insistence on pushing forward regardless had the audience hanging on her every word and gesture. By the time she hit the apex of the song and fell to the ground to roll around on her back, broken dress be damned, the entire room leapt to its feet to give her a standing ovation that lasted through the entire final minute of the song and for a solid minute after she was through.
Thankfully for all the other performers’ sakes, the only thing left to follow that show-stopping performance was an all-star rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy,” complete with an introduction from the Current’s very own Derrick Stevens, more confetti cannons from Tickle Torture, and giant white balloons floating down from the second balcony.
For a concert that was meant to simply warm up the stage for a screening of Purple Rain, the musicians truly outdid themselves. Not even Prince should have to follow a show that good.