A recent Washington Post article reports on the unease surrounding “the prospect of turning Paisley Park into Minnesota’s Graceland.” When I read that, my first thought was: is that really a bad thing? Blatantly commercialized as Graceland is, it’s given Elvis Presley’s home the status of an iconic landmark — and it’s solidified the status of Memphis as an essential destination for music lovers. Isn’t that what we want for Minneapolis (er, Chanhassen), and for Prince?
Of course, the differences between Prince and Elvis are vast. Beyond the books that could be written about their different roles in the history of music, pop culture, and race in America, there’s the fact that by the time of Elvis’s death in 1977, his creative powers had become increasingly compromised due to factors both within and beyond his control: he’d arguably become more spectacle than artist.
Prince, on the other hand, went out at the top of his game. That fact was reinforced by two different concert videos screened at Paisley Park yesterday as part of the second day of Celebration 2018. Attendees saw a 2015 3RDYEGIRL show full of sizzling musicianship and all of Prince’s trademark magnetism. I found myself watching the face of drummer Hannah Welton, slamming away behind the frontman while smiling widely and singing along for the whole set. When the band are having a great time, you know it’s a killer show.
Then, we saw an section of one of Prince’s “Piano & a Microphone” shows presented at Paisley in January 2016, just a few months before his death. There, Prince proved just as compelling alone in the soundstage with a purple piano (albeit one with some special features hidden under the hood). At one point in the video, Prince’s longtime friend and trusted employee Kirk Johnson appeared to set a binder of lyrics on the piano.
“Show your love for that brother,” Prince told the applauding crowd. “You cannot know how much he has helped to put this together.”
It was a rare moment in the spotlight for Johnson, who met Prince in the Purple Rain era — he can be seen as a dancer in that film — and ultimately became one of the few constants among Prince’s close associates. Johnson was one of the staffers who arrived at Paisley Park on April 21, 2016 to discover that Prince had died, and he subsequently became a key witness in an investigation of the star’s unexpected painkiller overdose.
That investigation formally concluded this week, with Carver County authorities announcing they won’t be bringing criminal charges surrounding Prince’s death. Just hours before last night’s concert, with spectacularly unsettling timing, authorities released a trove of documents from their investigation. The documents include transcripts of painful interviews with Johnson and other associates, including musical collaborators Sheila E. and (bizarrely) Sineád O’Connor. They also include agonizingly intimate photos documenting the inside of Prince’s carefully protected Vault and, yes, his mortal remains.
It was incredibly poignant to imagine, then, what was going through Johnson’s head as he took the stage last night at Target Center to play drums in a large-scale tribute called “Prince: LIVE on the Big Screen.” As soon as the show was announced in conjunction with Celebration, the concert became a lightning rod of controversy. Prince famously called the idea of virtual jams with deceased musicians “demonic.” What would he make of this?
The question’s not immaterial, but it’s also true that yesterday’s events demonstrated just how far we’ve come from any scenario Prince ever could have imagined. Major decisions regarding his legacy are now in the hands of his siblings, several of whom appeared onstage last night before the show kicked off. Tyka Nelson and others were shown in closeup on the big screen, all looking weary, their faces bearing understated smiles. “Their job isn’t easy,” Graceland CEO Joel Weinshanker pointed out, and I believed it — yesterday, of all days.
Some saw the concert as a cynical cash grab, but as the show unfolded it quickly became clear that, whatever the mix of motivations behind it, “Prince: LIVE” was planned and performed by true talents who sincerely wished to celebrate Prince’s music. The set list and pacing mimicked a late-career Prince concert; the footage seemingly came from his 2011 “Welcome 2 America” tour, which included some of the musicians who were onstage last night.
Climactic “Purple Rain” aside, by far and away the evening’s emotional climax was Shelby J’s reprise of her duet with Prince on “Nothing Compares 2 U.” We saw Prince’s warm interactions with the past Shelby on screen as the present-day Shelby sang her part onstage, wearing her same unmistakable costume but bearing a newfound weight.
It was an impressive feat to execute live accompaniment for an artist who wasn’t just singing the hits as they’re heard on the records: there were twists, turns, medleys, quick cuts, asides, and solos. Technically, the concert came off without a hitch, and the crowd of about 7,000 fans (or, as Prince like to call them, “fams”) seemed to be pleased with their experience.
As much as possible, the show was a recreation rather than a remix. We’re nowhere near “A Little Less Conversation” territory yet, although that will inevitably arrive. The images of Prince were largely straightforward, with a little mirroring here and there. The archival footage was intercut with live shots of the IRL band, and some — for example Pioneer Press music critic Ross Raihala — thought the ratio of Prince to present-day was overly weighted in favor of the latter.
All in all, while it couldn’t possibly replicate the excitement of an actual Prince performance, the concert came off as a sincere and impressive tribute. The crack musicianship and manifest affection of the band, including a visibly emotional Johnson, made the evening feel the very opposite of demonic. Still, the simple video of Prince’s 3RDEYEGIRL concert, while the screening made for less of a glitzy production, communicated far more about his genius as a performer and bandleader.
There was only one panel at yesterday’s Celebration: a conversation among members of the first band Prince convened as a solo artist. The Current’s Andrea Swensson led a discussion with drummer Bobby Z, keyboardist Dr. Fink, and Gayle Chapman — a keyboardist who has rarely opened up about her role in Prince’s first touring band.
The trio shared stories from the road, including anecdotes about the absurdity of touring with Rick James (“Before every show, they would chant…um, can I swear in here?”) and the time Prince and Dr. Fink were arrested after trying to appropriate an airplane bullhorn as a stage prop (Prince laughed his way through the incident). They also talked about their first shows together, a pair of performances at the Capri Theater to a crowd that included Warner Bros. executives reluctantly flown in to a frigid Minneapolis.
How did those shows go? “On a pass/fail scale,” said Dr. Fink, “they were a pass.” No better than that? Well, there were technical difficulties: guitarist Dez Dickerson, Fink remembered, used an early version of a wireless transmitter that allowed his guitar to be cordless but also picked up the CB chatter of passing truckers.
“Every failure was something you learned from,” said Bobby. “Prince knew what he wanted, and he worked really, really hard. And look what he did.” The Revolution’s drummer paused to look around at the vast Paisley Park soundstage, full of fans whose ardor was undiminished four decades later. “Look what he did.”
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