Will Celebration return? It sure sounds like it, based on the questions that Graceland’s managing partner Joel Weinshanker asked attendees on Saturday — and the responses he got.
“Who’s coming back next year?” he asked a full soundstage audience before the evening activities began at Paisley Park. Most hands shot up. “Okay,” he noted. “Next year, April 21 is Easter. Does that affect anyone’s plans?” Many hands went down.
So, odds are that the now-annual event, inspired by similar “Celebrations” hosted by Prince at Paisley Park, will be back next year, but it might not coincide exactly with the day that will mark three years since the music icon’s death.
A few minutes later, The Current’s Jim McGuinn took his own poll. “Who’s here from the Twin Cities?” he asked. Scattered hands rose. “How about from other places in the United States?” Most hands in the room went up. “How about from outside the United States?” A number of enthusiastic hands waved.
Many of these Prince “fams” have known each other for years, first from convening at Prince concerts, now from returning to Paisley Park and other destinations to celebrate the artist’s legacy. This year’s event was filled with hugs, warm greetings, convivial conversation — and, of course, music.
Saturday, April 21
Weinshanker asked for a moment of silence in memory of Prince, who died on April 21, 2016. He then invited McGuinn to the stage along with members of the group now designated “Funk Soldiers”: a band of artists who toured and recorded with Prince in the last decade of his life.
No one had more fun at Celebration, it seemed, than the Funk Soldiers’ horn section — a.k.a. the NPG Hornz. In conversation with McGuinn, players including Marcus Anderson and Adrian Crutchfield shared memories of being recruited by Prince to fly to Minnesota for an unforgettable adventure.
McGuinn asked the band about the animal hats they wore for a SXSW gig, and Crutchfield explained that the inspiration was a panda hat he was using to pad his instrument case; when he got to Minnesota, Crutchfield started wearing it for warmth. He recalled that in the studio, he’d hear Prince say his name, only to look up and find the band leader otherwise occupied. Later, he learned, the cues were a joke by Prince: “Every time he’d say my name, the panda would look up at him, and he thought that was hilarious.” Later, Prince asked the whole band to suit up with animal hats.
The band also talked about how they prepared for the technically daunting “Prince: LIVE” show, for which they served as the live band. The footage, explained keyboardist Cassandra O’Neal, came from a 2011 show in Greensboro, North Carolina. She described having a “myriad of feelings” about recreating the show, but ultimately, she said, “music is the dopest form of therapy.” The band members had been so well-drilled by Prince, they all agreed, that getting back into the groove together felt natural.
The most emotional moment of the panel came when O’Neal remembered practicing the keyboard parts from Prince’s albums when she was just a girl. “I lived out a dream,” said O’Neal, tearing up as she explained that her mother died shortly after the keyboardist joined Prince’s band, and so went to her rest knowing that her daughter had realized that dream.
In the NPG Music Club, Maya McClean and Mayte held a conversation on Prince and dance. The artists’ warm camaraderie and candid conversation helped relieve some of the awkwardness of a format that had the women exclusively answering fan questions. Instructed strictly to keep the questions to dance, most fans just asked some variant of, “Tell me stories about working with Prince.”
The show was almost stolen by Mayte’s young daughter Gia, who began the panel sitting on her own director’s chair, reading a Disney princess book. Someone asked if Gia was going to take after her mother, and Mayte asked the girl, “Do you like dancing?”
From behind her book, Gia deadpanned, “No.”
The main theme to emerge from the conversation was just how demanding and detail-oriented, yet fun, Prince was as a bandleader. I asked about Prince’s influences as a showman, and both dancers immediately cited James Brown. “He’d dock people when they messed up, like James Brown would,” laughed Mayte.
McClean — one of the twin dancers who accompanied Prince for shows that most famously included the Super Bowl — described how Prince would think in terms of “pictures.” Arranging a pose for the pre-game press conference, McClean said, Prince wrapped his arm around her leg and continued to play guitar. “That’s a picture,” he said.
The two spoke about the costumes they’d wear, and how they fit Prince’s vision for each show. Mayte mentioned that her costumes “just kept shrinking,” and after McClean described some of the looks the twins wore, Mayte recapped by joking, “I was just naked.” (Not actually, she had to explain to Gia, whose head popped up at that.)
McClean also remembered Prince telling her and her sister to “stop broadcasting”: in other words, to dance slightly behind the beat rather than right on it. At the behest of a fan, she even demonstrated as Mayte nodded approvingly.
Friday climaxed with a performance by the Funk Soldiers — this time, without Prince “LIVE.” Instead, the big screen showed the words, “real music by real musicians,” a favorite phrase of Prince’s. In the relatively closer quarters of Paisley Park, and freed from the click track that bounded their Friday night performance, the band exploded with life and vigor. Shelby J. and Kip Blackshire shared lead vocal duties for a set of Prince songs that demonstrated the artists’ shared musicianship and love of live performance.
The NPG Hornz — who had earlier recalled being tapped because Prince was looking for a “young, athletic” dancing horn section (Anderson and Crutchfield shared a high-five) — showed off their stuff with a series of solos and choreographed dance numbers. At one point, Anderson came running forward for a solo that literally brought the roof down: a clump of insulation fell from the ceiling and landed right at center stage. Laughing, Shelby J. kicked the snowball aside as Anderson just kept playing.
– Jay Gabler
Sunday, April 22
Jim McGuinn hosted Sunday’s opening panel, featuring bassist/vocalist St. Paul Peterson, guitarist/drummer Jellybean Johnson, saxophonist Eric Leeds, and vocalist Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s twin sister) of fDeluxe, formerly known as the Family.
Throughout the panel, these old friends did seem like family, sharing laughs and ribbing Peterson about his decision to leave (thereby breaking up) the band. “I don’t think anyone expected us to remain as good of friends as we are,” Peterson said, saying that they still share holidays and hangouts. The least chatty of the four, Jellybean Johnson, made sure to state, “Family’s everything to me.”
Melvoin remembered her days of sharing a California bungalow with Wendy and Lisa. The trio would hop in Lisa’s salmon Buick — which they nicknamed “Betty Flounder” — and pick Prince up at the airport, buying grapes on the way. “I don’t know why it was grapes,” Melvoin says. “But it was.”
And here’s how the band (which then included Jerome Benton) got their name: Melvoin idolized Aretha Franklin. She got a job with Quincy Jones by submitting a demo of her singing Franklin’s song “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” When Prince heard it, he called it “adorable.” But a week later, he told her she should leave the job with Jones and “come be in our family.”
Of course, the panel discussed the newly released original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which the Family released in 1985. Melvoin sang background vocals on the original, and before its recent release, Warner Brothers shared, “She’s way up in the mix.” Melvoin shared the story with pride, putting her hands to her heart.
Most of the rest of the day took place on a tour, which rarely differed from the standard experience, except that the tour guide (Sara) led us through with superlative knowledge and authenticity.
To wrap up Celebration 2018, fDeluxe took the stage for a funky, cool set. “Nothing Compares 2 U” brought on goosebumps, and after they finished performing, Peterson admitted, “That was tough to get through.” But most of the music seemed effortless as they cruised through music from The Family (1985) and Gaslight (2011).
fDeluxe Set List
The Screams of Passion
Nothing Compares 2 U
Song featuring lyric, “If I lost you I would die, die, die”
River Run Dry
Drummers and Healers
Song featuring lyric, “Everybody roll with it”
– Cecilia Johnson
Listen to our new stream Purple Current for music by Prince, his influences, and musicians who are carrying his legacy forward.