The “Official Prince Tribute Concert” at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul was ambitious enough as originally planned.
And that was before three major stars canceled: John Mayer (not a real loss), Christina Aguilera, and pop soulstress Anita Baker.
As it was, the show still ran over schedule by more than an hour, wrapping up past midnight, after five hours of music.
By the end, the sold-out arena crowd had been treated to a mishmash of Prince’s greatest works by an infinite cast of singers, and performers giving a mixture of unforgettable -- and downright regrettable -- takes on purple funk.
The cast of remaining artists was still overwhelming, and Morris Hayes -- keyboard man for the New Power Generation and bandleader for Thursday evening -- coordinated wonderfully, making the most of the stage and a stellar cast of musicians.
The night, as a whole, would have benefited from a bit of editing. Often, too many players needed too much time to set up, taking their turn on too many songs, which were spliced and diced into various medleys.
With so many breaks in between guest performances, these reconfigurations of each group often derailed the momentum that wanted to build so badly throughout the night. It became exhausting, hearing snippets of Prince favorites... only to then wait for a set change, for things to pick things up again in another set of medleys -- which would often cut short just when the funkin’ got really good.
There were definite highlights and memorable moments. The evening began with a video of friends and partners of Prince commenting on his legacy, and telling stories of his philanthropy. Janelle Monae, Van Jones, Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, and Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson and half-brother Omar Baker all spoke about the inspiration and example he set.
This culminated in a taped appearance from President Barack Obama, who praised Prince for his philosophy and charitable spirit. "Thank you, Prince, for all that you’ve done," Obama said. "You’ll be in hearts forever."
Abruptly, Mint Condition kicked off the music for the night with “America” and got the crowd moving with the patented dirty electro funk "D.M.S.R." Singer Stokley Williams did his best to conjure the sexiness with "When Doves Cry." The band was gone as soon as they started, followed by a long break to reset the stage.
Then Morris Day and the Time took over, for an all-too-abreviated two-song performance. Morris Day got things sizzling in a sexy yellow suit with “The Bird” and dove right into "Jungle Love," beginning and ending with Tori Ruffin’s finest shredding. Then, just like that they were gone.
Bobby Z surprised everyone, taking the stage to tell a heartwarming story about the first time he met Prince. Describing Prince's multi-instrumentalist skills, Bobby Z referred to another studio master: “They say Leonardo da Vinci could paint with one hand and write a letter with the other. That was Prince.”
"Tonight I’m deeply touched by the love for my old friend and I know he would be too," he continued, introducingthe NPG with the intro to “1999,” which immediately jumped into “Uptown.”
Prince’s childhood friend André Cymone led the huge band with Donna Grantis from 3rdEyeGirl and Liv Warfield taking over vocals for "Hot Thing." An army of back-up singers and a massive horn section layed down a funky foundation. The massively afroed back up singer Marva King provided a vocal workout with twin dancers Maya and Nandy McClean adding their stylish moves.
Afterward, Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson came out and sang a short tribute to Prince. She introduced Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, who led the band through short takes of "Nasty Girl" and "Baby, I’m a Star."
The brief tastes of each song became a little nerve-racking, not letting the songs breathe and packing so much into each mini-set. Thankfully, R&B sexyman Luke James did a soulful “Do Me, Baby” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” and allowed for the energy to settle down a bit.
Wearing a gold gown no doubt Prince would’ve approved of, Judith Hill performed a gripping gospel take on "The Cross," belting “Don’t die without knowing the cross!” She then took the piano for a sweet version of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”
André Cymone came back to take over vocals for “The Ladder,” and eventually rapper Doug E. Fresh got the crowd hyped over the “Pop Life” beat. Here, as at other moments, it felt like the band was killing time to give people a chance to make it to the stage.
Interspersed in some of the set changes were tasteful film vignettes of “Prince in his Own Words.” But some bumps in the show emerged with Portuguese Fado-style singer Ana Moura. Though she sang beautifully, it was a tad awkward and brought the vibe down: She didn’t really know the words to “Little Red Corvette.”
Finally, Chaka Khan came out, singing one of Prince’s favorite slow jams of hers, "Sweet Thing." She was eventually joined by the anticipated star of the night: Stevie Wonder, who appeared to play harmonica on their classic rendition of Prince’s “I Feel for You.”
Seeing Stevie sing “1999" was also really something. Again, the song was cut very short, and the excitement and energy of his appearance was dashed.
After an intermission, Liv Warfield returned with Donna Grantis and 3rdEyeGirl bassist Ida Kristine Nielson. Accompanied by a lush arrangement from the band, neo-soul singer Bilal reprised his recent appearance at First Avenue with the Revolution. With his grand falsetto during “The Beautiful Ones” he had the still-full house on their knees.
The band then cleared the stage for Prince’s first wife, dancer Mayte who performed a sword and belly dance that climaxed into a shortened version of "7."
André Cymone returned and did a charging "Computer Blue," trading leads with NPG guitarist Levi Seacer. “I Would Die 4 U” came next, with a powerful crew of backup dancers. And Prince hypeman pajama-clad Tony M. came out for a seriously funky “Sexy MF” and had all 17,000 people shaking that ass.
One could appreciate various members of Prince's different bands, musically reliving memories onstage. The audience reciprocated when Doug E. Fresh toasted everyone during "Gett Off," urging the crowd to get up on their feet.
The entire arena was bathed in purple, as singer Elisa Fiorillo brought it back down again with a dynamic and emotional “Sometimes It Snows in April.”
Killing more time for a keyboard setup centerstage, Doug E. Fresh came back out to do another freestyle and a bit of his signature tune, “The Show.” Singer Tori Kelly came out with a guitar for a fun two-fer of “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Diamonds and Pearls.” Stevie Wonder rejoined Tori for another medley of “Take Me with U” and “Raspberry Beret.”
English singer Jessie J looked amazing in a silky jumper for a sexy “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and soulful “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Stevie spoke personally about Prince and performed a favorite of his, Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” before busting into “Superstition,” which again got the arena back up.
A solemn “Purple Rain” wrapped up the evening, with Prince’s own taped voice accompanying the band. As purple glitter rained down from the ceiling, everyone from the whole evening came onto the stage to pay respects. Prince’s voice said “I love you” over the loudspeaker as the strings waned and the purple symbol appeared on the big screen.
Those left in the arena were physically and emotionally exhausted.
Critic’s bias: A lot of love for Prince and his music. Certainly no one can perform it like he did.
The crowd: All dressed up in purple, and ready to party like it was 1999. But after about hour four, it was starting to empty out.
Overheard in the crowd: "That was such a bizarre concert!"
Random notebook dump: So happy John Mayer bailed on this show.
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