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Sheila E sprints through rigorous, cathartic Prince tribute at Orchestra Hall

Sheila E performs at the Purple Philanthropy show at Orchestra Hall (Photo by Meredith Westin)

The Revolution had the advantage of being able to pull from Prince’s most recognizable catalog of songs and stage their show at First Avenue, the landmark club that Prince made legendary. The massive, sprawling tribute at the Xcel earlier this month had Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan. But Sunday night’s Purple Philanthropy concert at Orchestra Hall had Sheila E, one of the only Prince collaborators who can rival his own indefatigable, rigorous showmanship.

As the band struck up the recognizable, brooding beat of “Sign O’ the Times,” Sheila E emerged from the back of Orchestra Hall with a snare strapped across her chest and led a string of percussionists through the crowd like a drum corps major making her way into battle.

And though she did her damnedest to keep the energy high, the band grooving, the dancers spinning, the guitar and saxophone lines wailing, it was clear from that opening moment to her last goodbye that this was a deeply personal and emotionally wrought moment for Sheila, who made no effort to hide the tears that flowed throughout her two-hour show. For how difficult the evening must have been for her, one also got the sense that it was a necessary struggle; a hill that she had to climb in order to finally say farewell to her dear friend.

There were moments when she hung back, content to watch the kids from the Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project and young local dance troupes swirl around her, smiling as they created a dizzying visual accompaniment to “Paisley Park.” There were moments when she went all in, as she did on the positively thrilling and showstopping “Glamorous Life,” in which she played her drums so hard that she knocked over her cymbal stand, and which ended with her running and sliding across the stage, Springsteen-style, as the crowd gave her a standing ovation. And there were moments when she fell apart, as she did midway through the new song she wrote in Prince’s memory, “Girl Meets Boy,” when her voice caught in her throat and she stopped singing to bow her head and weep.

But even at her most vulnerable she never stopped commanding that stage. In her soft, sweet voice, she delivered a speech about her passion for philanthropy and called for an end to hate. She put her arms around the young performers who joined her on stage, saying “This is what this show is all about.” She instructed the audience to turn to one another and give each other hugs. And she turned her attention again and again to Prince’s sister Tyka and half-brother Omarr, who watched the show from the balcony, pleading for them to “stand tall, family, you stand tall. Don’t let them take anything from you.”

In the spirit of celebrating family, Sheila E was joined by her father, Pete Escovedo, on several songs, and brought out Prince’s first wife, Mayte Garcia, and his longtime dancers the Twinz (Maya and Nanda McClean) to reprise their performance from the BET Awards. If there is one image that tells the story of Sunday’s tribute better than any other, it’s the moment when Mayte and Sheila embraced at the end of “Baby I’m a Star,” arms reaching up to the heavens. The songs were fierce and the band was hot, but it was this moment that speaks volumes to me; it was so powerful to see these women who Prince elevated holding each other up, all raw and sad and joyful, panting as they sprinted together through this thing we call grief.

It’s been an exhausting few months for Prince admirers, but Sunday night felt like a turning point. We’ve reached the stage of acceptance, and found moments that resemble closure. Maybe it’s finally time to move forward and see what comes next.

Photos by Meredith Westin:

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