It wouldn’t be a true Prince show if there wasn’t some last-minute drama and uncertainty leading up to the main event. With news that Christina Aguilera and Anita Baker wouldn’t actually appear breaking just as doors opened (joining John Mayer, who canceled on Tuesday), and an elongated soundcheck that kept fans pinned in the hallways of the Xcel until 20 minutes before the scheduled start time, the haphazardly organized Official Prince Tribute finally came in for a rough landing in downtown St. Paul.
But then, at 7:30 p.m., there he was: President Barack Obama, on video screen, here to drive home the fact that Prince’s passing shook literally everyone to the core, and that his music ought to be recognized as a national treasure. And for the next five hours, that message was driven home again and again, by the musicians Prince worked with throughout his career and the pop stars he loved.
Hometown heroes Mint Condition kicked off the night with a blazing three-song set, including the upbeat “D.M.S.R.” and the first mega-hit of the evening, “When Doves Cry,” and were followed by Morris Day and the Time, who got the audience bouncing to “Jungle Love.” The night really hit its stride once the NPG house band took the helm, which allowed musicians to come and go more quickly from the stage, and momentum built as the microphone was passed between André Cymone and NPG singers Shelby J, Liv Warfield, and Marva King.
The NPG was brought to the stage by the Revolution’s Bobby Z, who told a sweet story about first meeting Prince and watching him play all the different instruments at Moon Sound studios back in 1977, and it was Bobby’s introduction that really drove home the significance of seeing so many different musicians from throughout Prince’s life come together to perform under the NPG name. To see André Cymone, one of Prince’s very first bandmates, perform alongside two of Prince’s final bandmates, 3RDEYEGIRL’s Donna Grantis and Ida Nielsen, was especially poignant. As was the sight of Paisley Park house manager Kirk Johnson holding it down behind the drum kit, and NPG bandleader Morris Hayes acting as traffic controller/musical director throughout the night.
Highlights in the early portion of the evening include André Cymone’s take on “Uptown” (also a showstopper at last month’s Revolution shows) and Luke James’ “Do Me, Baby.” When the lineup was first announced, I’ll admit I scratched my head at James’ inclusion; I didn’t recall any connections between him and Prince and he isn’t exactly a Christina Aguilera-level name in pop music. But dude blew me away. His falsetto on “Do Me, Baby” was hair-raising, and the crowd was clearly enamored with his performance.
In a touching moment, Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson took a few minutes to serenade the crowd with a short a capella song and give heartfelt thanks to the concert’s organizers, Randy Levy and Londell McMillan, and her siblings. With tears in her eyes, she looked up and said, “And of course, thank you to our brother, Prince.”
Judith Hill emerged in a glimmering golden robe to take everyone to church with the grandiose “The Cross,” and sat down behind a keyboard to lead everyone in a soulful, gospel-influenced take on “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?” The church vibes continued as André Cymone sang “The Ladder,” then things got sexy in a hurry with “Cream.”
Just as the energy was starting to drag, Chaka Khan emerged to bring the whole show to a higher level, performing her own song “Sweet Thing” and then bringing out Stevie Wonder to play harmonica on the Prince-penned “I Feel For You.” The crowd seemed genuinely surprised to see Stevie Wonder emerge so early in the show, and his presence on stage next to Chaka blew the lid off the joint. All four minutes of their duet on “1999” were pure bliss, and well worth the price of admission.
After a short intermission, the Paisley Park regulars were treated to a set of Prince’s most recent material by 3RDEYEGIRL’s Donna Grantis and Ida Nielsen, then Bilal emerged to reprise his spine-tingling, stage-rolling take on “The Beautiful Ones” from the Revolution shows and “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Prince’s first wife Mayte Garcia enchanted the room with a sword dance, and then fans were sent hurtling back through time to the earliest days of the NPG as Sonny T, Michael Bland, and Tommy Barberella took the stage for the extra funky “Sexy MF” and “Gett Off.”
As the show reached its fourth hour and many of the NPG’s core performers took their second or third turns at the mic, the reality started to set in: This was going to be a very long show, and still, somehow, the performers would still only touch a fraction of Prince’s massive catalog of songs. “Too many hits,” Morris Hayes joked at one point, adopting his best Prince voice. We heard deep cuts; we heard old stuff and new stuff; we heard obscurities and Top 40 hits. But we could also start to see the cracks in this quickly planned tribute show; with so many artists dropped off the bill, they could have easily shortened the show by an hour (or two, or more) and maintained a better sense of energy and excitement.
But that’s like any funeral or wake, right? Everyone wants to have their chance to honor the dearly departed, and we all work through our own grief in our own time. Maybe it’s just fine that the tribute dragged on and on like a wedding reception where every guest gets a chance to give a toast, or a farewell send-off that no one ever thought they’d be hosting so soon. By the time pop stars Tori Kelly and Jessie J appeared, there were many sections of empty seats visible throughout the arena. But it didn’t matter, because they were here to pay their respects, and they sang their hearts out.
Stevie Wonder, bless him, returned to regale us for the final portion of the show, dueting with Tori Kelly on “Take Me With U” and “Raspberry Beret,” then sitting alone at the piano to say a few touching words about Prince before a heart-rending cover of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”
“It’s an emotional night for me, and I’m just trying to keep it together,” Wonder said, his voice cracking. “He had so many plans — just to make the world a better place to live in. As much as you loved him, he loved me and I loved him even more. So I was praying, and I wanted to do a song that I felt would be appropriate. We’re dealing with a lot of craziness in this country and the world, as you know, and truly, he had love for every human being. So I just hope that for the rest of my life, every single day of it, I will continue to heal in the spirit of this man.”
As the clock ticked past midnight, things started to morph into a full-on Stevie Wonder show (no complaints here), and he stuck around for a funky “Superstition” with the NPG and a hard-driving instrumental jam. As Stevie sang, the crowd forming in the shadows behind the stage grew and grew, and there must have been 100 people standing back there, waiting for the encore. The arena must have only been about half full by this point, but those that stuck it out were rewarded. The night ended with Stevie Wonder standing silently on stage, holding hands with Marva King, mic at his side, as the NPG played “Purple Rain” and a recording of Prince himself sang lead.
It hit like a punch to the gut to hear Prince’s voice coming over the sound system, not unlike when Beyoncé emptied her stage and played “Purple Rain” during her show at TCF Bank Stadium, but it also felt exactly right. After so many attempts by so many talented musicians to do his song justice, it seemed fitting to let the man himself take us home. As purple glitter showered down on us and everyone involved in the show filed out on stage to say good-bye, we were left with one, singular voice. The last thing we heard was a recording of Prince saying “I love you.”
When Doves Cry
Morris Day and the Time
Remarks by Bobby Z
NPG House Band and Guests
Uptown – André Cymone
Erotic City – Shelby J
Hot Thing – Liv Warfield
Kiss – Marva King
Anotherloverholeinyahead – Kip Blackshire
Remarks and singing by Tyka Nelson
Nasty Girl – Nicole Scherzinger
Baby I’m a Star – Nicole Scherzinger
Do Me, Baby – Luke James
Most Beautiful Girl in the World – Luke James
The Cross – Judith Hill
How Come You Don’t Call My Anymore – Judith Hill
The Ladder – André Cymone
Cream – Elisa Fiorillo Dease
Ballad of Dorothy Parker – André Cymone
Pop Life – André Cymone and Doug E Fresh
Housequake – Doug E. Fresh
Walk in Sand
Little Red Corvette
The NPG and Special Guests
Betcha – Chaka Khan
Sweet Thing – Chaka Khan
I Feel For You – Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder
1999 – Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder
3RDEYEGIRL’s Donna Grantis and Ida Neilsen
PRETZELBODYLOGIC – with Shelby J
WOW – with Liv Warfield
The NPG with Special Guests
The Beautiful Ones – Bilal
If I Was Your Girlfriend – Bilal
Musicology – Shelby J
Dance performance by Mayte
Computer Blue – André Cymone
I Would Die 4 U – Marva King
Sexy MF – Tony Mosley
Gett Off – Doug E. Fresh
Sometimes it Snows in April – Elisa Fiorillo Dease
Girls & Boys – Marva King
She’s Always in My Hair – Kip Blackshire
Controversy – André Cymone
La Di Da Di – Doug E. Fresh
Let’s Go Crazy – Tori Kelly
Diamonds and Pearls – Tori Kelly
Take Me With U – Stevie Wonder and Tori Kelly
Raspberry Beret – Stevie Wonder and Tori Kelly
I Wanna Be Your Lover – Jessie J
Nothing Compares 2 U – Jessie J and Kip Blackshire
Someday We’ll All Be Free – Stevie Wonder
Superstition – Stevie Wonder
Instrumental jam – Stevie Wonder
Purple Rain – Prince