If you had a band and a full symphony orchestra to work with, which instrument would you choose to stand in for Prince’s voice? Does your brain reach for a guitar? A saxophone? Or would you rather leave the singing to your favorite recording?
New Yorkers might have been asking themselves that last night as they donned purple and made their way to the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn for 4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince. Most likely, they were more concerned with what songs would be on the set list, put together by Prince ultra-fan Questlove. As the first symphonic Prince show approved by the artist’s estate, the concert website said, it was not meant to impersonate the artist but to celebrate his “boundless creative output.”
4U’s tour starts in the tri-state area before traveling around the U.S. and Europe, but no Minnesota dates have been announced (yet). Questlove came onstage as the lights came down under the venue’s gold ceiling, but he did not stay for long. He left the playing to the Wolf Trap Orchestra; their friends on the guitar, drums, keyboards and synths; and to us.
The night was a mix of hits and deeper cuts, starting off with “For You.” Right away, the stage full of musicians showed us we were in for a different experience of these songs. For the first half of the night, no one sang. Instead, we got to focus on the music, and how awesome it was to have a dozen-piece string section riffing away on “Controversy.” It truly was cool to see how the arrangements cast each instrument. During “Computer Blue,” the brass section went crazy, with a saxophone giving a rich and scratchy feel to the vocal line. Muted trombones made “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” feel as alluring as the character. Having so many instruments helped us lean into the immense scope of Prince’s work, and revisit different moods from all over his career.
Also, the orchestra made us forget any expectations we might have had about a symphonic show. When the electric fiddle player stood up and started shredding during “New Position,” the night shot to a new level that even the most die-hard fans seemed to approve of.
Throughout the evening, projections lit the stage with video footage, photos of Prince, and close-ups on scraps of paper: handwritten lyrics and a list of his costume changes glanced over the screen at one point. The effects that hit home most were clips of Prince talking between songs when the stage was dark.
What this concert did best was keep its promise of never impersonating the artist. Not having vocals for most of the show gave fans some space to use their imaginations. It brought Prince into the room more meaningfully than it would have otherwise because in the absence of his voice, people could wish it into their memories or fill in for it by singing themselves.
Starting off the second half of the night with a string-plucked version of the “Let’s Go Crazy” intro, the musicians had already proved they could go there, so they kept going there. They took “When Doves Cry” into “Little Red Corvette” with a string arrangement where you could feel the sound moving in waves from different parts of the stage. The audio and projections took on a new role, playing live concert footage that let Prince steal the show in a new way. After a dance break or guitar solo, his audience from years ago went wild, and so we did too. The orchestra played “Take Me With U” and the electric fiddle player took up a microphone as she had a few times by now, singing the chorus and asking us to sing with her. She gave us a little extra push to lend our voices to the show without over-powering anything.
Then the musicians played a beautiful classical-sounding arrangement that was hard to place at first. It sounded like the overture to an opera or the opening credits of a film that didn’t have a date stamp. Then suddenly, they were playing “Purple Rain.” Prince appeared onscreen draped in a sequined cape, and for the first time, the band and orchestra played in time with the recording. As the song gave way to Prince’s final guitar solo, the group quieted down and let him take over.
At the end, we all got to have a moment with the artist, and the orchestra took us through the emotional experience that helped us get to a point where, in whatever way made sense to us — be it on the screen, in the music or in spirit — the Purple One was there too.
Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)
It Ain’t Over ‘Til The Fat Lady Sings
Christopher Tracy’s Parade
I Wonder U
Nothing Compares 2 U
Under the Cherry Moon
Alexa De Paris
The Beautiful Ones
All My Dreams
Let’s Go Crazy
When Doves Cry
Little Red Corvette
Take Me With U
Baby I’m a Star