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Purple love overpowers sound issues at Sheila E.'s emotional Prince Tribute

Sheila E. at Sunday's Prince tribute

Sheila E. at Sunday's Prince tribute Steve Cohen

“Ladies and gentlemen -- Sheeeilaaa E.!”

That was the echoing introduction provided Sunday at Orchestra Hall by DJ Rashida, Prince's longtime DJ, as guitarist Mychael Gabriel melted a thousand faces with his guitar solo.

Soon enough, we heard them: nearly a dozen drummers marching down the aisles, led by their fuchsia-shirted, purple-glitter-panted leader. With the opening notes of “Sign ‘O the Times” on a loop, Sheila E. stepped onto the stage, and the drummers filed into formation behind her. What followed was a loving, two-hour tribute to Prince -- her collaborator, friend, and one-time mentor -- that often felt more like an impassioned sermon. 

Organized in conjunction with the Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project, "The Sheila E. Purple Philanthropy Benefit Concert" aimed to highlight the humanitarianism of Prince, who died almost six months ago to the day. On Sunday morning, Sheila curated a music and arts fair featuring Minnesota artists honoring Prince. That evening, members of youth-focused Twin Cities organizations and people close to the Prince Rogers Nelson family lined up for interviews on the “purple carpet” (apparently to be archived later at Paisley Park).

Musically, the show was tight, despite the artists only having one day to rehearse together. They showcased a dynamic range of both hits and deep cuts, though unfortunate sound issues persisted throughout. The vocal mics were consistently too low and many instruments were mic’d too hot, making the singing difficult to hear.

Nevertheless, Sheila proved her prowess as a music director. On “Paisley Park,” a few songs in, the stage transformed into its own kind of park. Triangles of light swirled on the ground as kids from the YMCA and other community programs skipped rope and played hand games -- with Mayte and the Twinz, featuring dancer Mayte Garcia (Prince's first wife), no less.

A painting of Prince occupied center stage as an artist pretended to work on the Purple One’s impeccable ’fro. Turning around, the “painter” revealed himself to be none other than Pete "Pops" Escovedo, Sheila's father. The relationship between Sheila E. and the 81-year-old “best-dressed timbales player ever” (Sheila’s designation) wasn’t just a joy to witness: It was also a statement. In her 2014 autobiography, The Beat of My Own Drum, Sheila writes about how “Pops” would take their family out to share music with kids from underserved communities, even though they faced their own struggles.

In playing together that night, the father-daughter duo exemplified the topics Sheila spoke about throughout the show, like music education and the duty of older generations to uplift younger ones. They did a full medley together, including several Prince songs that were influenced by different kinds of Latin American music: “Te Amo Corazon,” “The Word,” and Sheila’s Icon cut “Leader of the Band,” the latter of which underscored Santana’s influence on Prince.

As expected, the crowd went wild over “Glamorous Life,” which Sheila banged out on the timbales with the kind of vigor that’s thrilled fans for decades. And yet, even through the next few songs, something seemed slightly off; Sheila seemed a little distant.

That changed halfway through the show, on the track she’d penned in the wake of Prince’s death, “Girl Meets Boy.” About midway through it, she choked up. Staring ahead with tears in her eyes, she tried but failed to pick the words back up as the band played on. With the crowd cheering her, she finally ad-libbed the ending, singing to Prince, “I’ll always miss you. Because we love you.”

Then, pointing up to the box seats where Tyka Nelson, Omarr Baker, and Prince’s other family members sat, she offered, “We love you. You stay strong, family. You stay strong, family. Don’t let nobody take nothin’ from you!”

And all of a sudden, the show felt freer. It felt as though she was more emotionally present.

Later, after facilitating a hall-wide hug session, Sheila grabbed her guitar and jumped into the audience to perform another track from 2013's Icon, “Rockstar.” Toward the end, it ramped up into the ending chorus of “Purple Rain.” But unlike many other tributes, Sheila took things to another level. Just earlier that day, in response to a question I asked about song selection, she’d said she wanted the concert to be a celebration. She made sure it ended that way.

For a few medleys, Sheila E. and her band -- featuring brass and guitar/bass sections, a drummer, back-up singers, Mayte, and the Twinz -- performed a set similar to what she’d put together for the BET Awards. It was thrilling to see it in the flesh: from Sheila hopping on drums for “Housequake,” to the triple threat of “Let’s Work," “U Got the Look," “Love Bizarre," and, later, “America” and “Baby I’m a Star,” which ended with that now-iconic image of Mayte with her arm around Sheila’s waist, this time pointing up toward the heavens.

Between all of this, Sheila somehow found the energy to take a killer extended drum solo, let loose several guttural screams, and guide us as Patron Saint of Philanthropic Parties through closing number “1999.”

By the end of the night, nearly everyone involved in the production was up on stage. Among them: Sheila’s security guards since 1984's Purple Rain Tour, the children who performed, Prince’s family, and “Pops” Escovedo, who she got emotional just announcing.

“It’s been very challenging,” she confessed after individually thanking everyone on stage. “Every piece of equipment broke today…Everything was wrong. But it’s how you end up [that matters].”

The crowd erupted in cheers.

The crowd: Well-dressed, ready to do a philanthropy but also have a funky time. Mostly middle-aged and older, but also a smattering of elementary-age kids, tweens, teens, young people, etc. E. is for everyone.

Overheard in the crowd: “Skills.”

Random notebook dump: Tyka Nelson has Iris Apfel-level glasses.

Setlist:
*Indicates Sheila E songs.
Sign O’ The Times
Play in the Sunshine
Paisley Park + Venus De Milo
Te Amo Corazon (with Pete Escovedo on bongos)
Leader of the Band* + The Word + Get on the Boat (with Pete Escovedo)
Glamorous Life*
Girls & Boys + 17 Days + Alphabet St. + Raspberry Beret
Girl Meets Boy*
Rockstar*+ Purple Rain ending
When the Doves Cry + Housequake + Let’s Work + U Got the Look + Love Bizarre*+ Sax solo jam (by Eddie M) + Diamonds and Pearls
Pop Life + Sheila E drum solo*
America + Baby I’m a Star
Let’s Go Crazy + Delirious
1999