Purple reign: Saluting the songs of Prince
A diverse parade of artists pay tribute to the mercurial singer, songwriter and guitarist
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
Prince has long been considered a gold standard as a singer, guitarist, stage performer, and producer. He's such a singular force, though, that he hasn't always been given the credit he's due as a songwriter. Thursday night's "The Music of Prince" all-star tribute concert at Carnegie Hall set out to fix that situation, as artists from D'Angelo to Elvis Costello to Sandra Bernhard played Prince songs both anthemic and obscure, and illustrated the spectacular range and power of his work.
The show was the ninth annual event organized by Michael Dorf, the man behind such ventures as the Knitting Factory and City Winery, all of which have benefitted music education for underprivileged youth (introducing the night, Dorf said that this concert raised over $100,000). Previous shows have honored the music of such artists as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, and the Rolling Stones; Prince was the first black artist, and the first outside the classic rock/singer-songwriter community, to be featured, a choice that was both obvious and inspired.
The audience was generous and receptive, and some of the lesser-known acts received some of the most enthusiastic response. With the Roots taking the stage as the house band, the show dove straight into the deep end as Irish rockers the Waterboys kicked things off with "Purple Rain." Singer Mike Scott pulled off a faithful rendition of the song's iconic vocal, the incomparable guitar solo was handled by fiddler Steve Wickham, and the performance earned the night's first standing ovation.
Most of the artists were smart enough to know that there is no way to compete with Prince's virtuosity — that it's impossible to match the falsetto shrieks and guitar wizardry — so they delivered the songs straight, avoiding the temptation to camp things up, or stripped them down and pulled out the melodies. The effect could be revelatory, heightening the emotions and vulnerability often missed in his lyrics. Texas-born jazz-folk singer Kat Edmonson delivered a stunning, heartbreaking version of "The Beautiful Ones," with sparse piano accompaniment. The least familiar name on the bill, Bhi Bhiman, sang "When Doves Cry" slowly and thoughtfully, with just an acoustic guitar, his voice sometimes cantillating Eastern European-style. Husband and wife Citizen Cope and Alice Smith caught the tension of "Pop Life" by contrasting a droning, downbeat guitar with Smith's big, bright voice.
The song selections didn't shy away from the complexities and contradictions in Prince's writing, showcasing his work at its most overtly religious ("The Cross," done as a straight gospel song by the Blind Boys of Alabama) and most uncomfortable sexuality (the incest story "Sister," turned into an emotional rollercoaster as Bilal sped up and slowed down the tempo). Soul legend Bettye LaVette sizzled on a sticky, lusty "Kiss," and Talib Kweli spat out the tense and jittery "Annie Christian," a weird meditation on evil and violence.
The least memorable performances were generally the least ambitious. Diane Birch is a talented and underrated young pop-soul singer, but her version of "Raspberry Beret," backed by a youth choir, was buried in a muddy mix. Elvis Costello — in a blue-grey suit, with a turquoise fedora and bright green socks, and wearing a red guitar that he never played — made a bold choice with the unreleased 1982 song "Moonbeam Levels," but the performance of this early reach by Prince into “Sgt. Pepper”-style psychedelia never cohered.
The comedians added other elements to the mix. Fred Armisen and Chris Rock offered brief recitations from Prince lyrics (the introduction to "Let's Go Crazy" and the interlude in "If I Was Your Girlfriend"), and Sandra Bernhard — in sequined top and silver shoes — preened through a dramatic "Little Red Corvette" that veered into an edge-of-chaos falsetto. She dedicated the song to "all those who lived life on the edge…to Apollonia, Sheila E, Vanity, Lisa and Wendy — and mostly, to the purple paisley god himself." “Saturday Night Live” alum Maya Rudolph and singer-songwriter Gretchen Lieberum, who regularly cover Prince songs as the tribute band "PRINCEss," sang back-up on several songs and performed a killer version of "Darling Nikki," resplendent in fingerless gloves, police-style hat, and spangled trenchcoat, with Rudolph shaking her big, pregnant belly while nailing the climactic yells and even the brief backward fade-out groove that follows the song on the “Purple Rain” album.
None of this would have been possible without the Roots. At this point, is there anything this band can't do? Their nightly gig on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” seems to have honed them into precision that almost defies belief, and with music scholar Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson marshaling his troops from behind his drum kit, they handled the challenge of each song masterfully (though the '80s synth-drum sound was occasionally distracting, if historically accurate). For almost the whole show, they were joined by unannounced guest Wendy Melvoin — Prince's primary foil from the Revolution days, a rock-solid guitarist who spread some magic dust into the grooves.
It fell to closer D'Angelo to bring it all home, leading the band on an extended romp through "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" and "1999." The notoriously reclusive singer, who hasn't gotten up from his keyboards to take center stage at his rare recent performances, was in full party mode, doing James Brown moves with the microphone, dancing across the stage, and generally tearing the roof off the sucker. The impressively attentive crowd got on its feet, and it was a reminder that, after a night that peeled back Prince's genius to explore the richness of his words and music, the other reason we love the guy is that he's still the funkiest dude in the atmosphere.
Alan Light is the author of "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.
Top photo: Elvis Costello performing with Maya Rudolph. Right: D'Angelo. Left: Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. Photos by Evan Agostini/AP