Better Than: Sobbing silently while watching the club performance scene in Purple Rain on your couch for the 25th time this week… not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The stage was bigger, the venue more prestigious, and the atmosphere gave off a more purple hue. But then this was a Prince tribute concert, so everything was on a grander scale, as the stars aligned at Carnegie Hall last night, with house band the Roots holding down a two and a half hour, 19-song set filled with celebrity turns, special guests, and of course, the music of the Purple One himself.
See also: Touré Tackles Prince in New Book, Finds Jesus, Discovers They’re One in the Same
Rumors circulated before the show — given life by Prince’s own assertion in Billboard‘s January cover story — that the man himself would be in the building, but official confirmation was impossible to come by. Instead, the packed house was treated to covers, re-arrangements, and all-out jam sessions on some of Prince’s most celebrated tracks, coupled with a number of deep cuts and even unreleased songs that were resurrected just for the occasion.
Just before the Roots took the stage, the man behind the event, Michael Dorf, announced that this iteration of his charity concert — the 9th of its kind — was able to raise more than $100,000 net for music education, and the assembled musicians wasted little time paying that back to the sellout crowd that packed New York City’s most prestigious venue. Whether he was there or not, Prince’s spirit imbued the proceedings, as the Waterboys took the stage and immediately tackled the elephant in the room, unleashing a powerful version of “Purple Rain,” complete with electric fiddle player Steve Wickham destroying the famous guitar solo, to the detriment of some of the strings on his bow. And while the performance received a standing ovation, the biggest highlights were still to come.
SNL‘s Fred Armisen took the stage to deliver the “Dearly beloved…” intro to “Let’s Go Crazy,” which eventually gave way to a rendition of “Raspberry Beret” by Diane Birch, Booker T and members of the Young Audiences of New York Kids Choir, which persevered despite sound issues drowning out the majority of Birch’s vocals. It was a problem that continued through the first quarter of the set — main vocals drowned by the rest of the band — and unfortunately undermined an otherwise dominant appearance by fDeluxe, the Prince-curated band which first saw the light of day as The Family in the mid-80s before being resurrected by frontman Paul Peterson (who goes by the moniker St. Paul) in 2009, whose high-energy funk set — comprised of Family song “High Fashion” into Prince live favorite “Mutiny” — was otherwise a master class in bass-driven grooves, with the aging but still rambunctious Susannah Melvoin moving about the stage like it was 1985 all over again.
And then there were the anomalies — and by anomalies, I’m mostly referring to the long intro Sandra Bernhard gave to a slowed-down “Little Red Corvette.” After dedicating the song “to Appolonia… to Victory… to Lisa and Wendy… but above all to the Purple Paisley God himself,” she then proceeded to milk the Carnegie Hall spotlight with a sexual abandon it may have never seen before. Bernhard’s turn embraced the totally ridiculous side of Prince that is nonetheless just as fun as his wrenching emotional tracks, managing to come off like that friend at the Karaoke bar who accidentally drank a little too much red wine and got in touch with the side of herself that always knew she was destined for the stage… whichever stage that may happen to be.
And if Bernhard represented the ridiculous side, the next series of performers resurrected the raw, emotional aspect of Prince’s music, the breadth of which often gets overlooked when people discuss his overall oeuvre. Bhi Bhiman’s voice rung out incredibly well through the Carnegie Hall atmosphere during his solo acoustic arrangement of “When Doves Cry,” while Kat Edmonson’s stark performance of “The Beautiful Ones,” accompanied only by a piano, was so compelling that you could feel the stillness in the Hall in the breaths between each note, each word delivered with an emotion that seemed to almost threaten to break her. The Blind Boys of Alabama, in matching shimmering suits, then lifted the mood again by turning “The Cross” off Sign O The Times into a singalong.
Talib Kweli injected a Trayvon Martin reference into “Annie Christian” (with it’s “Everybody say gun control!” line) while Bilal stretched the incestuous “Sister” — barely a minute and a half long on Prince’s Dirty Mind — into a five-minute epic, shifting through a slow, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”-type dirge into atmospheric, Pink Floyd-esque soul, and closing the song out with a frantic, scream-punk finish before calmly walking off the stage to another standing ovation. Chris Rock made a spoken-word cameo just before introducing Motown singer Bettye Lavette, decked out in all velvet, whose slowed-down “Kiss” brought out the track’s bluesier elements. A very pregnant Maya Rudolph and her Prince cover band sidekick Gretchen Lieberum emerged to perform the over-the-top ode to masturbation that is “Darling Nikki,” before Elvis Costello emerged wearing a bold blue suit and a cherry red Jaguar guitar (which he didn’t touch once) to sing the unreleased “Moonbeam Levels” and send everybody scrambling to find who his tailor was.
And then as Elvis walked off, the Roots kicked into the beginning of “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night,” and the most anticipated star of the evening geared up to for his crowning performance. Melvoin, Rudolph and Lieberum urged the crowd to make some noise, Questlove led the “ooh eee oh, woah-oh” vocal vamp, and still the piano set up in the middle of the stage remained empty. Even at a celebration of someone else’s music, it seemed D’Angelo just couldn’t help making the crowd wait, even if just for a little bit.
And then there he was, sauntering out on stage with all the subtlety of a hurricane, draped head to toe in all black but for a wide-brimmed white hat, which he quickly tossed aside. Gone was the shy crooner hidden behind his keyboards from his performance with Questlove at Brooklyn Bowl Monday night; this time he strutted straight to center stage and completely took over the venue, kicking the microphone from his feet and to his hand without missing a note, screeching and moaning each lyric with the uninhibited power of a rejuvenated James Brown. By the time the Roots kicked the jam into a set-closing “1999,” every performer of the entire evening had joined D on stage for a last hurrah, D’Angelo directing proceedings at the forefront of it all. It seems easy to forget, especially in light of his funkified but relatively subdued two-man show earlier in the week, but when on his game fronting a full-on funk assault, the only performer who could really touch D’Angelo would maybe be… Prince.
Overheard (from my own brain): Some people play classical music for their unborn children… Maya Rudolph puts hers on stage with the Roots and belts out one of Prince’s more graphic tracks. That baby is starting life out right.
Random Notebook Dump: Dear God, please save me from ever seeing Sandra Bernhard feeling herself up to “Little Red Corvette” again.
Random Notebook Dump (#2): Swung through the after party at City Winery just long enough to see Taj Mahal’s daughter Deva Mahal absolutely crush Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman.” Will have to make a mental note to check out her band in the near future.