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Remembering when Prince stormed Minneapolis with three 7/7/07 gigs and played First Avenue for the final time

Photos of Prince at First Avenue on 7/7/07 by Steven Cohen

In the mid-2000s, Prince had returned to the mainstream spotlight in a way he hadn’t since the 1980s. His battle with his longtime label, Warner Bros., was over. He had reclaimed his birth name, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was living out in Los Angeles, throwing star-studded purple parties at his famous 3121 house. By early 2007, he engraved his legacy into bedrock of history by delivering the greatest Super Bowl halftime show ever, and as that fall approached he was preparing to play a record-breaking run of 21 consecutive shows at the O2 arena in London.

So when July 7, 2007, rolled around — 7/7/07 — people figured that the artist who had a lifelong fascination with the number seven would do something special to mark the occasion. But what no one could have guessed was that Prince would celebrate his day, which was officially declared Prince Rogers Nelson Day by the governor of Minnesota, by throwing three separate shows in the span of a two-block radius in his hometown of Minneapolis.

It’s hard to believe that a decade has already passed since that momentous day, which is still fresh in the minds of many Minnesotans. Harder still to imagine that Prince isn’t here to do something wild for 7/7/17, or future dates he’d surely note, like 3/1/21. As time marches boldly onward, I wanted to take a few moments to remember this gift that Prince gave to Minneapolis.

7/7/07 was the first and only time that Prince would perform at the downtown department store Macy’s (which just closed last winter), and it was the final time he would play Target Center and the venue he made world-famous, First Avenue. What follows is the story of how that incredible (and boiling hot) midsummer day unfolded, as told by some of the people who helped pull it off and witnessed it first-hand — including never-before-seen photos of that last gig at First Ave by Minneapolis photographer Steven Cohen.

“It was crazy hot”

“Anytime I think about it, I always kind of chuckle,” recalls Jenny Bonde, one of the few people who witnessed all three events on 7/7/07. “It was a crazy day. It felt like two to three days, with all the stuff that was packed into it.”

As the 7/7/07 date approached, Prince announced that he would be launching a new perfume, 3121, and performing at a launch party at Macy’s and at Target Center. Fans lined up at Macy’s in April to purchase VIP ticket packages — $250 for tickets to both shows and a bottle of perfume. No one had any idea that he would also tack on the third First Avenue show, but folks still planned to fly in from all over the world.

“Minneapolis is his hometown, always special, and he didn’t have a major performance in Minneapolis since Musicology,” says Yumie Hasegawa, who came to the shows from Japan. “We also expected live at Paisley [Park], that’s why we decided to fly to Minneapolis.”

The day was shaping up to be a big deal for Prince’s hometown. Prince hadn’t played within the Minneapolis city limits since September 6, 1999, when he played at the short-lived Mill City Festival (his shows in the early 2000s were at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul), and he hadn’t played at Target Center since 1997.

To commemorate the occasion, the arena commissioned a local artist, Amelia LeBarron, to make a special poster that was presented to Prince, and invited elected officials to attend the event on the suite level. Looking back on it now, Target Center general manager Steve Mattson has a few vivid memories of that day: “How cool 7/7/7 was and his obsession with the date, his purple perfume boxes, and how hot it was that day: 95ish and super humid.”

“It was crazy hot,” recalls Jeremiah Freed, who blogs and podcasts under the name Dr. Funkenberry. “Like, how it’s supposed to be where I live [in Los Angeles]. The humidity there is just something else. We were all just sweating.”

Almost every person who attended the 7/7/07 events has the same recollection of their experience: a long, hot summer day spent waiting in line. Prince would go on late at Macy’s, which pushed back the time of the Target Center show, which made it even trickier for him to pull off the master plan he revealed only days beforehand: That he would cap off the day by performing at First Avenue for the first time in 20 years.

“Everything was just delayed, running late — I think this was the challenge of trying to do three shows in one day,” says Jenny Bonde. “But that’s Prince. He would always have the grand idea, and they’d have to make it happen for him.”

“It became an experience”

First Avenue’s talent buyer Sonia Grover and general manager Nate Kranz had been wanting to book a Prince show for years. They estimate he’d have his people call the club around twice a year and float various ideas. When Prince’s representatives called on July 3, 2007, the First Ave team immediately swung into action. By the next day, most of the details had been confirmed.

“I was on the phone at a Fourth of July barbecue trying to figure things out,” Grover recalls. “I sent them an offer and they quickly accepted it. There was no negotiation. They told me what the ticket price was, $31.21, and then it was mostly like, when are we going to announce? Who are we going to let in for free? Which the answer was, pretty much no one. And how are we going to deal with tickets? It was people who weren’t necessarily used to booking concerts; this was new territory for them.”

On July 5, 2007, the news was posted to Prince’s 3121 website: “Return 2 First Avenue: PRINCE LIVE. The official aftershow 4 Prince’s Target Center event this Saturday will take place at First Avenue.” By the next night, Friday, July 6, people were already getting in line to buy tickets when they went on sale at 3 p.m. on Saturday.

“We didn’t expect the line that we saw around First Avenue on Friday night. At 11 p.m., there were probably 250 to 300 people already in line,” recalls Jeremiah Freed. He had just arrived in town that day and had no choice but to simply get in line and stick it out along with the dozens of concert hopefuls lined up with their camping chairs, sleeping bags, folding tables, and coolers full of snacks.

“Me and my friend camped out overnight,” remembers Jenny Bonde. “We were right by the doors for the Pantages Theatre; the line started and went past where the Depot is now, around that way. And by the time tickets went on sale that morning, the line was wrapped around double — they were trying to redirect it because it came all the way back around the block.”

“It became an experience to bond with strangers,” says Rich Benson, who was one of the final seven fans to be granted wristbands. “I met people from Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and heard every language, from as far away as Germany. I ran into a lot of those people in the later years at Paisley Park, too.”

Though the experience was trying, everyone did their best to keep the spirits high. “Inside at First Ave, they had a Prince dance contest, so me and my friends took turns going inside and coming back out,” adds Bonde. “We brought our little DVD player and we were watching Sign o’ the Times. When you’re around other Prince fans, it’s an instant connection.”

Down the block, people were also lining up outside Macy’s for the first show of the day, which would start at 4:30 p.m. “Macy’s ticketholders had to line up first come, first serve,” says Yumie Hawegawa. “I and seven of my Japanese friends, and some 10 other fans, slept on the Nicollet Mall.”

“People started screaming”

Finally, on Saturday afternoon around 3 p.m., 7/7/07 started to swing into action. First Avenue’s tickets went on sale and the line slowly made its way into the club to get its tickets and wristbands, while those further back in the line panicked about whether or not they would make the cut.

“When we were around the corner on Hennepin, a security guy came around and did a head count and said, ‘You all should be good,'” remembers Rich Benson. By about 5 p.m., there were 30 people to go and a guy emerged from the Entry and said, ‘Sorry everybody! No more tickets!’ People started screaming. I said, let’s just wait. 15-20 minutes later, they said, ‘Seven tickets just opened up!’ He counted us off, and we rushed into the door. He shut the door behind us. We were shaking.”

Meanwhile Prince was taking the stage at Macy’s, where he would play a short showcase of new songs like “3121” and “Guitar,” mixed with classics like “Take Me With You” and “Girls and Boys.”

“Macy’s was really cool, it was all decked out in purple and gold,” says Jenny Bonde. “DJ Rashida was spinning before the show. It was really crowded, the sound wasn’t great but the show itself was really cool. He kept saying, ‘There’s so many hits, we can’t play more. We’ve got two more shows to go!”

After the gig, the street in front of Target Center would soon overflow with fans, forcing police to block off traffic. Although the Target Center show was supposed to start at 8:30 p.m., it wasn’t until 10:05 that Prince would take the stage. But he made sure it was worth the wait: He kicked off the show with one of the biggest hits of his career, “Purple Rain,” with none other than Wendy Melvoin playing lead guitar.

“My most favorite moment was ‘Purple Rain,’ which was the first song and it started by Wendy’s guitar. Goosebumps!” recalls Yumie Hasegawa. “It made me forget about things, like that I slept on Nicollet Mall, and waiting two hours for entry to Target Center.”

“In the crowd — and she shared this on Leno a few months later — was Sandra Bullock. She was at that Target Center show. Her husband flew her out because she was a huge fan,” remembers Jeremiah Freed.

In his review of the show, the Star Tribune’s Jon Bream wrote that:

His Purpleness was more talkative than ever in his hometown. He invited people onstage to dance and joked about one man looking like his gym teacher. He summoned a man, who could have passed for a retired Vikings-sized lineman, onstage to sing “Play That Funky Music.” And Prince even played cover boy himself, doing the Cars’ “Let’s Go” and the Beatles’ “Come Together.” After a duo set with Melvoin that included “Raspberry Beret” and “Sometimes It Snows in April,” Prince broke into the anthem for the trifecta — “7.”

Of course, to him, the night was still young. “You got a cellphone?” he asked. “Call your babysitter. We’ll be here all night. And I’m still going to go to church in the morning.”

“All I see is eight or nine cops on horseback”

Across the street, First Avenue’s staff was eagerly waiting for Prince to leave Target Center and head to the after-show. Originally, Prince hoped to walk across the street along with his fans, like a guitar-wielding pied piper. But his team convinced him to ride in a limo across the street as they raced to wheel gear across 1st Avenue and get ready for another show.

“Since I and my Japanese friends couldn’t buy First Avenue tickets, we waited at Target Center’s back parking lot for musicians to come out,” says Yumie Hasegawa. “Prince rode in a black limousine! When his limo showed up, we all screamed ‘Prince’ and waved hands toward his limo…and he slightly opened a window and waved back to us! He was in such a good mood.”

Nate Kranz figured Prince would take the stage shortly after midnight and play until bar close, hoping the police would understand if they ran a little past 2 a.m. But by the end of such a marathon day, things were seriously delayed — Prince didn’t appear on stage until somewhere around 2:45 a.m. After all that waiting, the room exploded as the band struck up “3121” one more time.

“When the lights went dark, everyone just hushed. ‘3121’ was incredible,” remembers Rich Benson.

“When he came on for me, this is what made it all worthwhile,” says Jenny Bonde. “We were all completely exhausted. It was super packed in First Ave, and we were all tired and hot, but it was just such a cool moment to see him up there on that stage, and just where a lot of it started for him. It was a really special moment for me.”

Sheila E. and Wendy join Prince and the NPG at First Avenue (Photo by Steven Cohen)

“3121” was followed by a mix of fan favorites, including “Girls and Boys,” “I Feel for You” (from his second album, Prince) and “Controversy,” which Prince played many times in the early 1980s as his career was just beginning to rise. He was joined by Sheila E. and Wendy Melvoin, who had both performed at Target Center, and Larry Graham was waiting in the wings for his turn on bass.

Jeremiah Freed notes that there were a few hints that Prince was feeling a little nostalgic on that particular night. “He had a few outfit changes that night, including the bandana that he wore during ‘Darling Nikki’ in Purple Rain. He was having a good time, you know, performing ‘Controversy’ and saying, ‘I’m at First Ave. Gotta play it.'”

“When he played ‘Controversy,’ Nate and I put our arms around each other and were like, man, it will never get better than this,” recalls Sonia Grover. “And then 10 minutes later, we’re like, ‘Oh, s***.”

As the clock neared 3:30 a.m., Nate Kranz walked to the back bar on the second floor to grab a glass of water, and looked out at a deserted 1st Avenue. “I’m looking down the street through the window, and all I see is eight or nine cops on horseback.”

“There was no one else — no other cars, no other people,” Grover adds.

“So I told Byron [Frank, the owner of the club], then I found [fellow operations manager] Sam Peterson, and we went and met the cops down at the front door. ‘Hey! How’s it going? What’s going on?’ And they were kind of like, ‘Well, it’s 3:30 in the morning, you’re in violation.'”

Kranz and Peterson tried to convince the cops that they were in the clear — they had stopped serving alcohol by 2 a.m., by law — but the police insisted that they were past curfew and needed to shut down the show.

“They came into the club,” Kranz continues, “which is weird. Normally the cops always want to stay outside. You ever see cops wander around in here? It generally means they’re pissed off. But the cops came in that night. They were definitely not pleased with us.”

Though rumors were swirling, the audience had no real indication that there was any trouble. Prince kept bringing more and more musicians on stage, crowding them around his horn section and backing band. Shelby J, who had just joined the NPG six months earlier and debuted next to Prince at the Super Bowl, took a turn at the mic singing Amy Winehouse’s “Love is a Losing Game,” which Prince would play with Amy in London just a month later. And Larry Graham appeared to kick off a set of Sly and the Family Stone covers, like the Prince favorite “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” and “Everyday People.”

Wendy Melvoin, drummer Cora Coleman-Dunham, Prince, Larry Graham, Shelby J and the NPG (Photo by Steven Cohen)

Prince with Larry Graham at First Avenue (Photo by Steven Cohen)

“You started to see the police come in,” remembers Jenny Bonde.

But Prince was in the middle of his show — who was going to tell him to stop?

“As soon as he got off stage, that’s when they told him,” Freed recalls. “If he wouldn’t have gone off stage, I don’t know how much longer they would have let him go on. But that was it. He went off stage, and someone told him we’ve got to shut you down.”

“You saw this commotion. Someone whispered to someone who whispered to Prince,” says Benson.

Kranz estimates that the police had allowed Prince to play about three more songs before finally pulling the plug. After getting the news, Prince came back on stage to break the news to the audience.

“Then he said something like, ‘See you back soon,'” says Grover.

“‘I’ll be back soon,'” recalls Kranz.

Prince ends his set at First Avenue (Photo by Steven Cohen)

After the show, the staff at First Avenue scrambled to reach out to city officials to make sure they would be able to accommodate Prince again — even if he wanted to play at 4 a.m. “We immediately called our councilpeople and were like, ‘Okay, maybe we were wrong in thinking that it’s First Avenue, it’s Prince — let’s just do it. You know? This is something we should be able to do.”

So the city activated a so-called “Prince Permit,” which First Avenue could request with little advanced notice, when needed.

“We never had to take it that far, though, because Prince never played here again. He would call us; we tried. But everything would get to that one-yard line, and then your phone just doesn’t ring. You’d get everybody lined up to throw a staff together, and then the call would never come.”

In the decade that’s passed since 7/7/07, the “Prince Permit” has only been pulled once: This year, on April 21, 2017, when the club wanted to throw a memorial dance party in Prince’s memory that would go until 4 a.m.

Prince tells the crowd at First Avenue that he’ll be back soon (Photo by Steven Cohen)