Before Lizz Wright took the stage at the Dakota Jazz Club, her show was introduced as “like being in church.” Wright brought the church vibes and more last night, blending worship, funk, sex, love and more into an apt tribute to the man whose absence colored every note.
Wright’s show was crafted for and to Prince, who saw her at the Dakota on April 19 of last year, two nights before his death. That show is believed to be the last concert he ever saw. The Purple One so enjoyed her performance that he stayed through the encore, and Wright wanted to return to the venue a year later to commemorate his passing. The Dakota was clearly glad to have her back.
Wright began the evening inconspicuously enough, repeatedly mentioning that she wanted to “ease into it” before she floated effortlessly through Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “I’ll Be Your Water.” Yet the number made for an auspicious opener, with the subtext lost to no one as Wright, bathed in a faint purple glow, intoned, “you’re my cradle baby; you make me fly.” Bobby Ray Sparks’s deft handling of the organ only intensified the joyful noise, with Wright acknowledging early on, “I know what night it is.”
From there, Wright launched into a series of covers of artists whom she knew Prince held in high esteem. That meant a variety of styles were represented as Wright offered her own takes on standards by Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Her passion was particularly impressive as she acknowledged she was largely unacquainted with the songs and read the lyrics from a screen at her feet.
Reverence turned to reverie as Wright returned to two original works. She grew out of any tentativeness remaining from her covers with a powerful, improv-heavy rendition of “Freedom” and a performance of “Fellowship” which, though not a cover, paid homage to The Artist in its own way. Equal parts religious, and funky, evocative and original – that’s as good a tribute to Prince as any.
An interlude for a personal story about Prince’s legendary backstage weirdness and penchant for sudden disappearances – “he got out of there like he was a private eye just trying not to be seen” – gave way to two covers of his music. “Sometimes it Snows in April” got an impromptu singalong as well – if you wanted to be in the crowd here, you probably knew the words.
Wright hit the sudden jump from ballad to Parade’s provocative “New Position” without missing a beat. Again, a powerhouse blend of reverential and sexy not only got the crowd going, but evoked Prince in his baddest glory. “I have to thank Prince for getting me out of my element,” Wright later demurred after a tender cover of Ann Peebles’s 1973 hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”
The closing number – Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Lilliquoi Moon” – offered a profound coda to an evening of genre-hopping. It’s surely no coincidence that Wright chose to conclude her set list with a song about haunting departures as she crooned, “I yearn to fly,” before taking a moment to bask in purple light and adulation.
The evening would be incomplete without an encore, however. Wright saved her energy for a soaring, divine take on “Purple Rain.” Her vocals didn’t tug at the heartstrings; they ripped them apart altogether. Yet in the purple aura emanating from the stage, the concert became much bigger than her and the audience was brought to its feet for a religious experience as they waved candles and echoed the wordless final minutes of the song. Yes, the candles were fake. And no, most of the crowd could not hit those high notes. But everyone sang, and by the end, everyone stood. That doesn’t happen at every concert, but last night, it happened at a vigil.
Photos by Leslie Plesser:
I’ll Be Your Water – Sweet Honey in the Rock
Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You – Nina Simone
A Case of You – Joni Mitchell
Every Grain of Sand – Bob Dylan
Freedom – Lizz Wright
Fellowship – Lizz Wright
Sometimes it Snows in April – Prince
New Position – Prince
I Can’t Stand the Rain – Ann Peebles
Lilliquoi Moon – Meshell Ndegeocello
Purple Rain – Prince
Writer Ibad Jafri does not go to Carleton College.