Last March, Prince helped release Judith Hill’s debut album, Back in Time, for free. Like many online phenomena, though, the download link was temporary; after a couple of days on the web, the album disappeared. The good news for those who missed it: Prince’s label, NPG Records, re-dropped Back in Time last Friday (this time “through more conventional channels”). To follow up the album release, Prince hosted “a party for [Judith]” on Saturday in Chanhassen, playing over an hour of music with Hill.
The latest installment of Prince’s house shows followed typical Paisley Park protocol. The official concert announcement came via Twitter on the day of the show, and the party started late and stretched deep into the morning. The Twitter announcement didn’t mention a time for doors to open, so fans started showing up around 8:00 p.m. and waited on a side street in their cars.
Once I joined a row of parked vehicles, I got out and walked around. Doors were set for 10:00 p.m., according to other drivers, but we actually started toward Paisley parking around 10:15. “Turn off your headlights,” a security guard instructed. “Leave your phone in the car, and don’t get out until we tell you to.” As soon as the lot filled up, someone must have gotten the go — passengers pushed their car doors open, and a lot-wide exodus surged toward the doors.
Inside Paisley Park, guests paid their relatively modest $10 cover, and most people filed into a Triple-Rock-and-a-half-sized room with a small stage set up. “Love symbols” (a.k.a. the Prince glyph) decorated a back wall and the mic stand.
By the time the first rows of the crowd were in place, Prince’s band had already taken the stage. Saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield joined the line-up of musicians from Madonna’s Paisley visit: Kirk Johnson on drums, Donna Grantis (of 3RDEYEGIRL) on guitar, and Dywane “MonoNeon” Thomas on the bass. Prince walked on stage just after I found a spot in the crowd and jammed for two songs with the band; he played the keys on stage left, and I’ve never seen a crowd shift so clearly to face a performer.
After that mini-set, a long break elapsed, and most of the Paisley Park guests hustled over to the complex’s main stage. But something else was afoot during that first set gap; “PAISLEY PARK TOURS,” read a few fliers posted around the main stage’s entry doors. For 40 dollars, fans could go behind the scenes and tour the studios with Jester. During the four Paisley Park tours given, participants gawked at historic studio spaces and a wall of encased music awards…not to mention the motorcycle from Purple Rain. What’s more, Judith Hill sat in one of the studios, waiting to share some thoughts on recording there with Prince.
Hill seemed coolly gracious and thankful as she ran through Back in Time’s creation. She avoided eye contact, to some degree, as some fans enthused about her work. During the tour I had joined, we walked over to the Granite Room (named for its construction materials), and she played part of “Cry, Cry, Cry” on a grand piano. She lunged beautifully through the chorus then ended abruptly. “That’s enough,” she said with a self-conscious smile.
If Prince was the center of gravity last night, Judith Hill was meant to be the bright new star. Hill is one of the best vocalists I’ve ever heard, which makes sense considering her professional background (backup singer for Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Carole King; key figure in 20 Feet from Stardom; Top 8 finalist on The Voice). She has masterful dynamics control, and her composure seemed unshakable last night. But once she joined Prince and the band for the night’s second mini-set, she stayed back at the keyboards: curiously out of the spotlight.
After one song (“As Trains Go By,” which is about “social inequality […] and police brutality in the streets”), the whole band left the stage for another long period. Two mini-sets down; how much music to go? Time felt nebulous at Paisley Park, especially with no watch and no cell phone to keep track of the hours. The feeling invoked lyrics from “MR. NELSON”; the ninth song on Prince’s HITNRUN (Phase One) album, it features Lianne La Havas singing, “Where you are now/ Is in a place that does not require time.”
Hill and the band returned to the stage for the third set of the night, performing “Cry, Cry, Cry” and jamming past the end. Hill’s voice wept over the words, squealing and even cracking. At first, she tried taking the center mic, but technical difficulties pushed her back over to stage left.
During the following break, EDM hits and older Prince songs entertained the audience for an hour or so. The playlist seemed to reflect Prince himself — creative (samples of Rihanna instrumentation over other hits) and playful (Ginuwine’s “Ride My Pony”) but also elegant and technically brilliant (“How Deep Is Your Love” by Calvin Harris & Disciples).
Finally, all six musicians took the stage again for a longer set of tunes, which included the Hill-featuring HITNRUN (Phase One) opener “MILLION $ SHOW,” a new Prince song (“Hey!/ Whatcha got cookin’?”), and a cover of “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” by Sly & The Family Stone (Hill said she sought to sound like them). During Hill’s call-and-response song “My People,” Prince invited a fan to dance onstage, singing, “You don’t want to mess with him/ He’s Judith’s nephew!”
Every musician got a chance to show off at least once, and Prince performed a delightful drum solo. Even after a dozen songs, he didn’t seem to want to leave — near the end, he started another song and said, “I know, I’m trying to stop.” But after several hours had stacked on top of each other — the party lasted from about 10:30 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. — he had to call it a night.
In closing, Prince encouraged the audience to buy Back in Time. Once more, he praised his protégée, saying, “Judith Hill: we love her, and we hope that you love her, too.”
Cecilia Johnson is a freelance writer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro. Her favorite things include tapas, clearanced books, and chance encounters.