Is there anything more electrifying than that hopeful, anything-could-happen feeling that fills the air in the two hours before a Paisley Park show? Is there another time in our lives when a group of people’s hopes and dreams align so specifically? Have you ever cried about a guitar solo? Have you ever truly desired anything as much as Prince fans desire their king? Has anyone else pined so passionately for a hero that might finally, this time, if the stars align just right, give them what they want to hear and see and believe?
The call for this particular Paisley Park show came earlier than usual. On Sunday, as Alabama Shakes recovered from their big Hall’s Island blowout and did a little fishin’ with our program director Jim McGuinn, social media lit up with the news that the band would stay in town another day to perform out in Chanhassen at Prince’s recording studio and performance bunker, Paisley Park.
The show was earlier than the typical Paisley affair, too, with the sun still reflecting off the building’s gleaming white walls when hundreds of fans formed a line that snaked out the front door and down along the street to a bike path that runs in front of the studio. By the time the last few hundred people made their way inside the sun had started setting just far enough to create that “golden hour” that filmmakers and photographers fantasize about—but nobody outside Paisley Park dared to snap a photo for their Instagram for fear that they’d be escorted away by the sassy security guard who was screaming, “No cameras! No jaywalking! I’m not responsible for no roadkill!” as everyone filed inside.
At precisely 9:35 p.m. two of Prince’s 3RDEYEGIRLs jumped up on stage, and drummer Hannah Ford Welton greeted the full house and explained that she and Donna Grantis had attended Saturday night’s Shakes show with their husbands and that they, “blew it out of the park. So we extended an invitation to come to this park and blow this park away.”
As Prince and his bandmates walked up onto a riser and took a seat on a purple plush couch at the back of the room, Alabama Shakes filed out and leaned into “Rise to the Sun,” one of the more angular tracks on their 2012 debut, Boys and Girls. It only took a few minutes for the band to feel out the energy of the room, and by the second song the entire audience was clapping along (in time, somehow, which never happens—was the purple energy holding us all together?) and hooting and hollering to the fiesty “Always Alright.” As far as I could tell, everyone who queued up outside had been admitted into the building in time to catch the show, including an overexcited man behind me who screamed “WE MADE IT! TWO HOURS LATER, WE MADE IT!,” and the roughly 1,200-person audience cheered their heads off like they were in an arena.
Although their set was quite similar to the one they played at Hall’s Island on Saturday night, the songs took on a different energy in the smaller space, with frontwoman Brittany Howard pacing the stage like a soul diva and communicating directly with members of the audience between songs. At one point she seemed sincerely flattered and surprised by someone who complimented her hair (“Did you see what I looked like before?” she joked), while at another point she paused to state, “I’m not a very eloquent speaker, but everything I say to you is true. I’m having a good time, and it’s nice we’re in this little room together, I think.”
The crystal clear acoustics in Paisley Park’s performance space amplified the power of Howard’s already monumental voice and highlighted her interactions with her three back-up singers, especially on the ’60s soul throwback “Guess Who.” As the energy of their set soared, Howard paused between songs to address the audience again, smiling and saying, “I’d really like to thank Prince for having us over. What an idea!”
And then, it was time. Time to see if all those hopes and dreams were going to come true; time for the universe to open up and thank us for our devotion to the gods of rock ‘n’ roll; time for Brittany Howard and her fantastic band to see if they could hang with the champion of Chanhassen. As the band tore through the second chorus of their big hit “Gimme All Your Love,” he appeared: Prince, clad in black Wayfarers, an aquamarine tunic, and smart grey vest, his Afro getting longer every day, quietly padding to the back of the stage to pick up a guitar and then moving toward Howard slowly, avoiding eye contact, feeling out the groove. Howard stood steady and held her own, looking down at her own guitar and smiling with the knowledge that her band was killing it, she was killing it, and it was actually happening. The musicians took a moment to find each other in the ether, and then Prince laid on some wah-wah effects and stepped to the edge of the stage and delivered the guitar solo of everyone’s collective fantasies. The band locked together, the solo lifted everyone higher and higher, and Prince opened his mouth as if he was unleashing the unholiest of roars. It was perfect. It was spiritual. It was the kind of live concert magic that keeps people waiting in lines and buying tickets and standing in crowds and shifting on tired feet; it was exactly what we wanted, and it validated what it meant to be a fan of this silly little thing called music.
And then, with a nod and a twitch, it was over. Prince set down his guitar, kissed his pointer and middle fingers, laid them on Howard’s cheek, and skittered off stage. Alabama Shakes, somehow, had to keep playing a show. “Prince, ladies and gentlemen,” Howard said when the band finished the song, and then they did their best to power forward through another song and a simmering three-song encore.
As they continued to play, sounds started emanating from the room next door. Sound check sounds, like someone testing a mic and checking the levels on a guitar amp. That sense of anticipation started to mount again. Something else was going to happen! And the longing for that something was so intense that it could have lifted Paisley Park off the ground and flown us all up into outer space.
Alabama Shakes finished their encore and the crowd started to move into the other room, which is a common practice at Paisley shows that feature more than one performer. There, in the smaller room, under a screen that was showing the animated film Rio, was Prince’s signature glyph microphone and all of the equipment that is used by his band. A man was checking a microphone. The crowd pressed in tighter. The sense of possibility was enough to make us woozy. But we all know how this ends.
Just as the crowd wanted to cheer, and with the mic still hot, someone reached down from outer space to pull the plug on this particular evening. A man on a cell phone shouted, “It’s not gonna happen!” Security guards started screaming at the audience to clear the room. And with hopeful puppy dog faces all around, we were slowly pushed out of Paisley Park and back out into the night.
Alabama Shakes at Paisley Park set list
Rise to the Sun
Sound & Color
Don’t Wanna Fight
I Ain’t the Same
Gimme All Your Love (with Prince)
Over My Head
You Ain’t Alone