Local Current Blog

In concert and conversation, Prince peers pay tribute at SXSW

André Cymone holds a bottle of champagne aloft in tribute to Prince at SXSW (all photos by Jay Gabler/MPR)

“You could have been anywhere tonight,” said André Cymone onstage at Lady Bird Lake. “There’s a lot going on. But y’all are here, and we’re gonna have some f—ing fun!”

To say there were a few other things happening was an understatement: it was Friday night at SXSW, one of the biggest annual music events in the world. Hundreds of artists were playing around Austin in hopes of grabbing the attention of industry insiders, but for an audience of thousands at the outdoor stage on the south side of the Colorado River, it was strictly a family affair — for local families, and for the global purple family of Prince fans.

Cymone and Dez Dickerson, two of Prince’s earliest and most significant collaborators, were front and center at the free concert despite the fact that there was a much more famous musician onstage with them: Wyclef Jean, whose announced presence at the show was initially something of a puzzle, but who ended up keeping himself modestly at stage left, playing guitar and congas for the show’s duration. The former Fugee only stepped out for a brief rap before “1999” (the subject: his disdain for Donald Trump), seemingly to reassure fans who’d come out to see him that he was actually there.

(“I didn’t come to spit,” Wyclef later tweeted in response to a confused music journalist. “I came to play.” Guitar emoji. Sunglasses emoji.)

It was appropriate for a gathering of knowledgable music lovers that the leaders of the Prince tribute weren’t generic stars, but men who knew Prince closely and played with him when he was just starting to catch fire. Cymone told a story about meeting Prince (“He said, ‘I play guitar’ and I said, ‘I play bass.’ The problem was that neither of us actually had those instruments. We had nothing but a dream”), and Dickerson played the guitar solo that dyed-in-the-wool Prince fans are aware was also his on the recording of “Little Red Corvette.”

Cymone, Dickerson, Wyclef and the band were a little slow to build momentum, in part due to technical difficulties, but the energy picked up at the middle of the nine-song tribute set — notably at “Controversy” and “When U Were Mine,” a song that Cymone is covering with increasing vigor and confidence as the months roll by and he’s asked to perform again and again in his late friend’s honor. (He’ll keep at it, as he’s headed out on tour with the New Power Generation.)

The band also featured guitarist Micki Free, though it was unclear who the other “very special guests” billed in the lineup might have been. (Update: A reader notes that band member John Wesley Payne, a respected funk veteran, was another.) Cymone and Dickerson traded lead vocals, sometimes within the same song, Dickerson soulful and poignant on the inevitable set-closing “Purple Rain.” Phone lights went up, tears were shed, and we all mourned the singular Prince once again.

In a somewhat un-Prince-like gesture — not because of the extravagance, but because of the alcohol — Cymone popped a bottle of champagne in Prince’s memory, literally pouring some out onto a towel hurriedly run out by a stagehand. The set started with two new solo songs from Cymone’s forthcoming album, and with a video trailer for Nothing Can Stop Us Now, a Prince documentary by Mike Kirk — featuring interviews with Cymone and Dickerson, who co-produced — promised for release this summer.

The trailer was also screened this afternoon as part of a panel discussion with Cymone, Dickerson, Owen Husney (Prince’s first manager), and music journalist David Fricke. At the panel, the four discussed Prince’s very early career, sharing insights on the Minneapolis music scene — and the industry generally — at the time Prince emerged in the late ’70s.

Asked about Minneapolis’s rock versus R&B scenes, Dickerson remembered that “there were three scenes”: white rock, black R&B, and a scene where the two overlapped with interracial rock bands. Dickerson remembered being frustrated by A&R reps who would say they couldn’t market such bands because “you’re black and you’re not playing black music.” Dickerson wanted to retort, he said, “Well, you’re stupid and you shouldn’t be doing this.”

Fricke was interested in the early buzz around Prince, but Cymone and Dickerson both laughed at the idea of Grand Central — the band Cymone and Prince played in — attracting anything like what we now know as buzz. “This was before Twitter,” noted Dickerson. Cymone imagined what such buzz might have sounded like, given Grand Central’s typical orbit. “‘These guys, we saw them at a barbecue in the hood!’ I don’t think so.”

Eventually the panel made its way around to the subject of Prince’s perpetual stoking of controversy, such as the infamous American Bandstand performance when Prince instructed his band not to answer any questions (“He got that black-Dennis-the-Menace look on his face”), replying to host Dick Clark only with silence.

American Bandstand was all there was!” said Dickerson, remembering his shock that the band wouldn’t be taking the golden opportunity to do a nationally televised interview. When he was young, Dickerson said, “I would practice talking to Dick Clark in my room.”

The joke was on everyone but Prince, though, when all of his stunts succeeded. “In controversy,” as Husney put it, “there is commerce.”

The best story told involved some slightly premature star behavior on Prince’s part. After he signed his deal with Warner Bros., Cymone remembered, Prince said, “We’re not going to be able to go to the grocery store any more.” Eventually, of course, that became true — but then, he was still largely unknown.

“We’d go to 7-11 and he wouldn’t go in,” remembered Cymone. “I’d be like, ‘Why won’t you go in?’ and he’d be like, ‘I gotta get used to it.'” Then Cymone would emerge, and Prince would ask why he’d been laughing with the cashiers.

“I told them you can’t come in,” Cymone would explain, “because you’re going to be famous someday.”

“You told them that?”

“What? Was it a secret?”

Prince tribute setlist

Let’s Go Crazy
Let’s Work
When U Were Mine
Little Red Corvette
Purple Rain
Encore 1
Encore 2
Party Up

Prince SXSW tribute 4

Prince SXSW tribute 01

Prince SXSW tribute 02

Prince tribute SXSW 03

Prince Tribute SXSW 5

Prince Tribute SXSW 7