“Prince forever! Prince forever! Prince forever!” chanted Stevie Wonder around midnight Thursday at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, perfectly summarizing and capping off an unforgettable tribute to the one and only Prince Rogers Nelson.
Prince is dead?
That would be news to the 17,000 faithful who took in the five-and-a-half hour homage that starred Wonder, Prince’s old pals Andre Cymone, Morris Day & the Time, Prince’s former wife Mayte Garcia and many others. Hard to believe, too, given all the Prince music that fills the ether these days, and the truth is, whenever one of his old bands or admiring protégés takes up the torch, Prince lives on through his music.
Cliché to be sure, but after witnessing yet another rebirth of the artist’s vast catalog and singular artistry at the X last night, it’s difficult for this longtime fan to feel anything but reverence and joy, and to be wonderstruck by yet another rebirth of the purple magic, which President Obama dubbed via video at the outset of the night, “a national treasure.”
“The reality is, his music will be around for thousands of years,” Bobby Z, drummer for Prince’s seminal band The Revolution, told the crowd, to cheers. The Revolution wasn’t in the Xcel house, although Z told the Star Tribune before the show, “We support the whole thing,” and took the stage for an impassioned rave about his old friend and band mate, whom he first joined forces with in 1977.
“This music is so unbelievable, because musicians love to play it. That’s why we love hearing it over and over—of course the angelic vocal doesn’t hurt, either. This music will always mean excitement, success and power.”
Bobby Z compared Prince’s lasting influence to Mozart and Van Gogh, and on a day where Minnesota music fans and beyond celebrated Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for literature, it was Prince day in St. Paul Thursday, as decreed by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Gov. Mark Dayton. The government accolades were fitting, for the scope of music presented Thursday was a staggering smorgasbord of sounds that encompassed rock, heavy metal, R&B, folk, classical, hip-hop, blues, jazz, and innumerable temperatures of funk, from lite to molten.
At times it felt like a holy day in St. Paul, especially when a video of “The Cross” came up, interspersed with clips of Prince talking about his views on God and love. It was powerful to see Prince’s face on the big screen — so alive, so vibrant, so sexy — and in that moment hell if it didn’t feel like we were all at the birth of a new nation, the start of a new religion, with the power of the funk and roll and Prince’s messages of dance, sex, music, and romance as its communion.
“Even though this world can be dark,” said singer and “The Voice” alum Judith Hill around the midpoint of the funky funeral, briefly reminding the gathered dearly beloved about the toxicity going on in America outside and far beyond this one-night-only temple of unconditional universal love and soul-stirring music of the highest order; “there is one who gives us hope, and I know Prince is alive and well.”
She then uncorked a scintillating version of “The Cross,” delivered in a shimmering gold dress that could’ve been on loan from heaven’s choir itself. Cymone, whose “Black Man In America” single would’ve been a welcome and relevant addition to the song list, furthered the spiritual vibe with an impassioned reading of “The Ladder,” and a buoyant set-closer of “Housequake.”
Music director and bandleader Morris Hayes, who played and performed with Prince longer than anyone else who took the crowded stage last night, carried the torch of his old friend with reverence, dignity, and funky beauty. His beaming face and generous musicianship was a crucial flame for all to gather around, and his easy way with the musicians and expertise with the songs was the rudder that made the night possible, and consistently poignant.
Highlights abounded, including a brief appearance by Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson, a seasoned soul singer in her own right, who hushed the crowd by channeling her brother via a teary falsetto. Chaka Khan and Wonder’s take on “1999” was heart-lifting, historic, and surreal; Luke James’ versions of “Do Me, Baby” and “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” were good examples of great songs that need little reinterpretation, and James’ brawny voice and robust delivery, backed by the New Power Generation, was a treat.
Near the end of the night, a ferocious melding of the NPG and Third Eye Girl brought things to another boil, as did Mayte’s sweet and erotic belly dance that felt as free as Prince’s free spirit itself.
“It’s an emotional night for me,” Wonder told the crowd after performing “Take Me With You” and “Raspberry Beret,” and before going into his own “Superstition” that brought forth the “Prince forever!” chants. “We talked a lot, and he had so many plans [to] just make the world a better place to live in… We’re dealing with a lot of craziness in this country and in this world, and as you know he had love for every human being.”
The night ended with a recorded live version of “Purple Rain,” which was perfect and perfectly sad, as the house lights came up and, with Prince’s voice still ringing throughout the hall, the thousands of mourners-dancers made their way into the night to be alone with their thoughts and, yes, grief.
I went fetal in April when Prince died, and I realize I may be ahead of the stages-of-grief game (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) after last night, having embraced a grudging acceptance and hit the afterlife.
My shift happened at — where else? — First Avenue, on the Thursday before Labor Day, specifically when the Revolution’s Wendy Melvoin sang “Purple Rain” — a song written about a fictional band, whose members try to get their fictional band leader to play their song, and now here was Melvoin in real life, singing the song that made them famous, reinterpreted in her own shaky voice, and hers to sing for the rest of her life.
I could feel it. My grief changed on the spot, and I grinned to think that Prince himself was nodding in my direction, like, “My life was never about me, my life was about the music, and look at all the people loving it and learning from it!” It was goosebump-giving, to be sure, and the moment was so mythic and unprecedented, it was no exaggeration to feel that Prince’s spirit was there, and, like his music, everywhere.
That is, it brought me to a better place, where the sadness is eclipsed by the music and by the buoyant spirit of the man himself. Should there be more tributes? Yes, and why not? One Prince song that wasn’t performed last night was “Joy In Repetition,” but its mantra should be a guiding light for whatever happens next with the man’s boundless legacy and infinite music.