Sure, there are plenty of obscenities. There’s alcohol. There’s a venue easily accessible by public transit in the heart of the city. And instead of the entertainer radiating confidence, confidence feels in-your-face.
But there is the ambiance of a last-minute, spontaneously planned event. There’s a pre-show deejay set where hundreds of phoneless folks eagerly and anxiously await to find out what the host has in store for the night, regardless of how late it goes. And there’s a passionate community coming together to fully embrace and enjoy what always winds up being a one-of-a-kind experience.
Setting aside the obvious differences, there sure are a lot of striking similarities between a Prince Paisley Park party and a Dave Chappelle Juke Joint.
After a Prince-heavy set sprinkled with classics by James Brown and Michael Jackson and newer tracks by Prince-inspired groups including the Roots, DJ D-Nice warmed up a crowd of 500 at Aria in downtown Minneapolis.
At 10:20 p.m., Dave Chappelle entered the scene to an elevated VIP area, threw his hands up and took in the audience’s warm welcome. Lit cigarette in his hand, Chappelle made his way down the stairs and took the stage. “Nobody can smoke but me,” he said, then fondly reflected on his 10 shows at First Avenue and the State Theatre the week prior.
Giving his “Juke Joint” context, Chappelle said that it’s a throwback and dig to Prohibition, when “black people couldn’t have fun.” Then, he introduced French harmonica player Frederic Yonnet, asking him to “bring it back to the Bayou.”
Backed by an eight-piece band — the Band with No Name — Yonnet ripped into a fervent performance as Chappelle looked on with a dumbstruck expression. An improvised version of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” served as a band introduction; the band featured Minneapolis saxophonist Eric Leeds and trombonist Mike Nelson, who both played with Prince. “Can he kick it?” Chappelle asked the crowd. “Yes he can!” The exchange brought Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL’s “CRAZY 2 COOL” medley to mind: “Are you hot?” Prince asked his bandmates. “No!” they responded.
“You know why?”
“‘Cause you cool.”
Before the clock struck midnight, Yonnet and the band masterfully performed a handful of familiar tunes, the most surprising being a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” As the chorus kicked in, Chappelle jumped into the crowd, moshed, then sang along on stage. He stumbled his way through Beethoven’s melancholy Moonlight Sonata and welcomed Donnell Rawlings of Chappelle’s Show to screech his audio logo, “I’m Rick James, bi-yatch!”
Then, 12:01 rolled around. The lights turned purple, and the Band with No Name began playing that familiar “Purple Rain” hook.
“I can’t see my friend again, but I can see his spirit in this city,” said Chappelle. “It’s now the birthday of Minneapolis’ favorite son.”
The mood was certainly somber, but this Juke Joint had a mission of merrymaking. D-Nice kicked off another deejay set with the only artist that could follow a Prince cover: Prince.
That was all fun, but to really up the ante, Prince cohorts Mint Condition hit the stage. Frontman Stokely Williams dedicated their set to their late friend on what would have been his 58th birthday.
Between performing their own songs, Mint Condition worked in a Prince medley, plus an outstanding performance of “She’s Always in My Hair,” which was intensified by Yonnet’s harmonica and Jamecia Bennett of Sounds of Blackness. Chappelle again looked dumbstruck, as did the crowd.
After Brother Ali freestyled to a rip-roaring hometown crowd, Yonnet led the Band with No Name through another set of familiar songs, which included Radiohead’s “Creep” and the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” featuring Minneapolis vocalist Ashley Commodore and New Power Generation bassist Sonny T. (who played two reunion shows last week at the Parkway Theater, with a third to come on Wednesday). Sonny T. then performed “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” backed by Chappelle on vocals before Stokley closed out the night, leading an improvised full-band, foot-stomping jam.
As I left the Juke Joint, I had the same exhausted-yet-exhilarated feeling I remember from my late nights spent at Paisley Park.