Celebration 2017, a four-day event at Paisley Park last April, drew plenty of Minneapolitans to Prince’s home. That said, most of the long weekenders hailed not from the Twin Cities or outstate Minnesota, but from far-flung states and even other continents. Such was the case of Belgians Stijn Vandeputte and François Vidal, plus their Italian/Brazilian friend Nicola Ardito, none of whom had been to Paisley before. During the Celebration weekend, the trio met me at Pow Wow Grounds on Franklin to try some fry bread, share music stories, and talk about what it feels like to be in Prince’s hometown.
I’ve met fervent Prince fans, but none had such encyclopedic knowledge as Vandeputte, Vidal, and Ardito. Their purple shirts betrayed them to the barista, who said he’d seen Prince at First Avenue in the ’80s but got the exact date wrong; Ardito corrected him at the counter. Even after a day-long flight delay in Reykjavik, they seemed full of energy, sharing anecdotes and making jokes about Lake Minnetonka.
In addition to being a Prince superfan, Vandeputte is a musician himself, and he’ll perform a selection of Prince songs at Brussels’s Ancienne Belgique on June 7, which would’ve been Prince’s 59th birthday. Last year on the same date, he performed a beautiful tribute show. Just after Prince’s passing, he visited Studio Brussel to play “Little Red Corvette.”
Vandeputte, Vidal, and Ardito aren’t sure if they’ll be traveling back to Minneapolis for Celebration 2018, especially since so many of their friends stayed home for the first one. The next day at Paisley, Ardito told me they were some of the only “real nuts” in attendance. But visiting Prince’s home — walking through the halls he walked — made quite an impact on all three. Here’s how they told the story.
CJ: You had a crazy flight over here, right?
Stijn Vandeputte: Yeah, that was a bit of a bummer. We were planning on getting to know Minneapolis first and then make the step to Paisley Park. We missed LP Music at the Dakota Jazz Club, and I [had] really wanted to see that because I was already chatting with Eric [Leeds, saxophonist] about it.
So it was a bummer to arrive later, but our flight was fun. We met Ida Nielsen, who is the bass player for 3RDEYEGIRL. We were getting our tickets and our vouchers for the next day, and I was in the airport. I was like, “François, this is Ida, right?”
Hopefully, we can see Eric next time. Because indeed, being here in Minneapolis makes us feel, “Hmm. Maybe we should do this every year.”
Really? That makes me so happy.
SV: Well, the good thing about being here is that we’ve always known Prince from what he does in Europe, but we never knew Minneapolis — where he’s from. To actually be here and to see the things that he had seen, and to meet the people that he’s been working with, helps us understand more [about] why he was doing what he was doing and why he came to Europe so much.
We’ve seen a few shows in Paisley Park now, and there’s a huge difference if you go to a show here. It’s not a judgment, but people stick close to their chairs. We can totally not understand it. When Prince came to Europe, we all screamed and shouted every song. Jump in the crowd, stage-dive. Go crazy.
Plus I’m thinking about Paisley Park now and before last year. I went to see two shows before Prince passed away, and they were amazing. So much energy. Since he’s gone, Paisley Park is different.
SV: It’s great that it’s open. And it’s very nice for us to meet up with people who have one same interest: the love of Prince’s music.
We discussed it; it’s like Prince’s present to us. He gave us all these new friends from all over the world. He’s gone, but we’re not gone, and what he left is also not gone. He even opened up his house.
François, you were at the first show Prince ever played in Belgium, right? Can you tell me the story?
François Vidal: It was in 1986 — I was at a summer camp in England, and one morning I just saw a newspaper. “He’s coming.” With a picture of Prince coming to Europe. I was stuck in Cambridge, so I was very lucky to have a friend from school with a spare ticket. I’m so grateful for him. He gave it to me for face value, and i was 16 at the time. There was so much excitement with Under the Cherry Moon.
I discovered Prince through the Syracuse gig on the Purple Rain tour.
SV: [nods] They broadcasted it. I was too young. But Europe fans just a little bit older than me — they’ve all seen it, and it was a brilliant move to do that. That’s why he says in the beginning of the video, “Hello, Syracuse and the world.”
[Prince] himself knew very well that they were broadcasting all over the world. It was going to go big. And that’s what happened; people recorded it, and immediately afterwards, it’s almost in every story from early Prince fans in Europe. That’s the thing that got them hooked.
He did one tour in Europe before, I guess.
Nicola Ardito: In ’81.
So when he came to Europe when François saw him, it was awesome. Everybody knew him; he already had Purple Rain out. So Europe was excited and waiting for him to come over. Once he found out that in Europe, we’re all so close to each other…I mean, Nicola’s from Italy. We’re from Belgium. But we would meet up every tour for multiple concerts all over Europe, because it’s so small. For Prince, it was like, “It’s great. I’ve a huge fanbase here. They’re very loyal, and they all show up.”
After a while, he found out it was the same people. There’s a funny story about Italian Prince lovers: three girls from Italy named Rita, Lori, and Betty. There were some tours they went to every show. All of a sudden, Prince saw them and knew. So with these Italian girls, he sent his bodyguard to say, “Please move. I don’t like it that you see my show from the same angle every night. Because then you might see what I do wrong.” But he was very gentle with them every time, because he even invited them multiple times onstage. They never wanted to go up.
What about you? What would you do?
SV: He invited me onstage one time at an afterparty in Cologne. He does that more often during the big shows, but I never felt the urge to do that. But then in Cologne, I was in the front row in a small venue, and he was like, “C’mon!”
I got on stage and started dancing next to him, and we were having a good time. There were more people, too. And then all of a sudden, he was like, “Okay, get everybody off.” I was about to go off, but he was like, “No, no! You can stay.”
So I was next to Marva shaking that thing. I was pointing at him, like, man, you’re cool, but I’m just dancing here with Marva, so I’m having a good time. And I guess that might have been the reason why, because normally, when people get on stage with Prince, it’s pretty quickly like they want to touch him or be around him. I was just happy to move.
Do you know how many Prince shows each of you has been to?
FV: I think counting the aftershows, it’s between 40 and 50 shows.
SV: I stopped counting at 50, and that was in the middle of 2007. So between 50 and 60.
We were spoiled in Europe. I went to the Diamonds and Pearls tour nine times. It was pretty easy to see him nine times, because he played six times in a row in Holland, then one in Belgium…and once you get hooked on seeing him live, you’re like, this is the best thing. You can get the records and memorabilia, but the show is the best way to experience his music.
So what made you come to Minnesota? I know there’s a lot of reasons, but what made you decide, “We’re buying the plane ticket?”
FV: I called Stijn, and I told him, “It’s now or never.”
SV: I remember that phone call, because we both were like, “Let’s sleep one night on it.” We put the positives and the negatives on a list, and there was much more positive.
If we would come all the way over from Europe just to do a VIP tour, we’d be in and out of Paisley Park in an hour and a half or something, and that would be it. And we both realized if we go for Celebration, we got four days in a row to celebrate, to mourn, to grieve, to laugh, to cry, to dance, to be at his house and at least get a little snippet of what it might’ve been if he was there. [pauses] I get goosebumps while I’m talking about this.
It’s very nice to be connected with so many people that don’t look down on you because you’re a Prince fan. Some people laugh at that. So some people are stuck with their feeling of loss. Like, “I have nobody to talk to about it.” But when you’re there, it’s like one big family. You don’t have to explain why you’re crying.
François, you said when you first saw Prince, Europe was crazy about him. How would you describe the attitude toward Prince now?
FV: When Prince was coming abroad to do shows, yes, the media were there to cover it. But on the mainstream side, I would say, he was much more off the radar. Before, in 1986, everybody knew. But last year, I’m not sure everybody knew he was coming to Belgium or France.
NA: On the other hand, if I may join: I think that in the last few years, Prince, like many other artists, realized that he could make some bucks by playing live. Much more playing live than doing records in any form. Therefore, he realized that he had to convince everybody that he was the best live. Everybody knew that already in the ’80s or the ’90s, but I think that in the last few years in Europe, there was a gradual realization that when he was playing live and he was really on, he was unbeatable. That’s what the newspapers were writing about.
At my last show in Ghent in Belgium, he played for more than three hours. He kept coming back. Some people at that concert were not fans, but they were just blown away by how much music was pouring out of this man.
So, is his music relevant anymore? For most people, it wasn’t. But when he was on the stage, there was no competition.
SV: Also, we were so used to his performances in Europe that they didn’t really talk about the albums anymore. You could feel it was his second home. I’m pretty sure that he’s aware of where he played. He kept frequenting some venues all over Europe, and we took it for granted, in a way.
That was pretty hard. We were taking about the tour — Nicola ordered a Judith Hill CD from the Electric Fetus, and he didn’t take a tour, because he was like, “We’re going to get it when he comes over, because that’s what he does.”
In the ’90s, people got fed up with him changing his name and stuff. It was a hard time to be a Prince fan. People would say, “Ha, you’re not a ‘Prince’ fan anymore, because he changed his name.” Coverage in the press was more about his weirdness than about his music.
The part about “taking it for granted” feels true for me, having grown up in Minnesota. We just always thought that Prince would be here. [shrugs] He lives here.
SV: But what’s cool for us, now that we’re visiting Minnesota and Minneapolis, is that he is here. Every street corner, every place you go; you feel something. Everybody has a different Prince story. Like the guy behind the counter, who was like, “I saw him in ’81.” I can imagine that for you guys, it’s normal.
We went to Jesse Johnson last night, and before I left, I went to the loo. Some guy pointed at me and said, “It’s over there!” I looked, and I wanted to say, “Wow, it’s [NPG drummer] Michael Bland. Of course!” So I went to talk to him, and I said, “I was 13 the first time I saw you, and you gave me my first autograph. It’s so great to see you again.” We had a little chit-chat. In that way, it’s fun to absorb the environment here.
I happened to run into [3RDEYEGIRL guitarist] Donna Grantis last week, and I didn’t tell her, but I shaved part of my head because of her. [laughs]
SV and FV: Aw, so sweet! [all laugh] They’re all very sweet.
I wanted to ask you about playing Prince’s music. I watched the Ancienne Belgique show and really liked it.
NA: [laughs] Next time you get Stijn in Minnesota, you make sure he plays something, okay? Maybe it’s a waste to have him here not playing. Got it?
SV: If you get me a piano, I’ll gladly play live on the radio. [laughs]
The thing I try to do is: I make my own proper music. I do love Prince, and his music, especially. The thing I see going on while I’m on stage is that I’m indeed inspired by his energy, and I like to take the energy from the room and be the mediator. That’s what I found out when [Ancienne Belgique] asked me to play the Prince show. That’s why I’ll play the show again on his birthday.
If you do a show, people can get a little taste of that live feeling. I don’t want to recreate his live feeling, but when I have a hardcore Prince crowd, they all will do their best to revive that energy.
I only do it around his birthday. I’m not going to go on tour. I’m not going to do that Prince impersonator stuff. That’s not my cup of tea. But I’d like to get people to know his music, and the songs choices are important for that. I’m not going to play “When Doves Cry” or “Purple Rain” or “Kiss.” I love those songs, but they’re already in everybody’s memory. So I like to pick out some of the unreleased stuff; the B-sides. Stuff that he never played live. That’s what interests me, and I know it’s the same for my dear Prince buddies, like François, Nicola, and all the others.
I was so surprised when Jesse Johnson played “Purple Rain” as the second song last night. For the first time ever, I had to say, okay, this song has to be fun. But I could do that because I’ve had a lot of time to grieve and be sad. [pauses] Where are you in the grieving process?
SV: It hits me from time to time. Luckily enough for me, I started listening to his music very quickly after his passing. I found it very hard to sing along in the beginning, but then I had those shows coming up, so I started practicing “Sometimes It Snows In April” on the piano. After one bar, I started — [mimes crying]
Now, the hardest thing is to hear him laugh. When I hear skits, videos, or recordings where he’s laughing, I really start choking.
And when my kids start talking about him. I was going to take both of my sons to the Piano and a Microphone show, and they were like, “He didn’t come, right? Why didn’t he come?” My oldest boy is almost 10 and the youngest is five.
I don’t have the feeling that I have to get over it. This is where I am. I cry; I laugh.
NA: Are you over it?
[pause] Am I over it? [slowly] I’ve accepted it. I don’t know if I’m over it. I watched Purple Rain in my favorite movie theater, and after that was the first time I started talking about him in the past tense.
SV: Oh, but that’s still very hard for me.
FV: [choked up] You spoke a lot in present tense today.
My last Prince show, I begged my little sister to come with me, because I had a plus-one. She’s 15, and I’ll always be so glad that I had her come.
SV: Yes! They showed us the footage from the Paisley Park Piano and a Microphone show yesterday [at Celebration]. God, it was beautiful. They showed us the first 45 minutes, and really, to hear it on that stage with incredible sound — all of a sudden, everything made sense. [awestruck] The sequencing of the songs; all of the things he said before and between. We were totally not aware.
Lightly edited for length and clarity.