NEW ORLEANS — Anniversaries often bring reunions. And to mark the 20th anniversary of “Purple Rain,” Prince reunited with some of the players in his musical past — Morris Day and The Time, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and former protege Sheila E.
“This hasn’t been done like this in a long time,” said veteran musician Larry Graham, who performed at Friday’s Essence Music Festival show at the Superdome in New Orleans. “This is just right on time.”
Prince’s show, the kickoff to the three-day annual concert festival in the city, was a five-hour party attended by 50,000 people, the largest crowd for a concert in the festival’s 10-year history.
The show started out on a bizarre note — Prince, onstage in a disguise of a straight-haired wig, hat and beard, playing the guitar on inline stakes as relatively unknown performers danced or sang around him. The most famous person to come on stage at that point was Graham, formerly of Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station.
Then, the mysterious figure onstage announced Sheila E., and the audience erupted in cheers as she ran through her 1984 hit “The Glamorous Life.”
Day and the Time, billed as the opening act to Prince, emerged later. Day, who starred with Prince in the groundbreaking film version of “Purple Rain,” joined his preening sidekick Jerome as they sang old hits like “The Bird” and “Cool.”
Prince didn’t hit the stage until nearly 11 p.m., but the crowd didn’t seem to mind — middle-aged women squealed like schoolgirls and young men barely older than Prince’s 25-year career bounced up and down as he performed classics like “Little Red Corvette,” “Controversy” and “Adore,” as well as material from his most recent album, “Musicology.”
Sheila E. rejoined her former mentor onstage to perform along side him on “A Love Bizarre” and other tunes, while Melvoin — who along with keyboardist Lisa Coleman were simply referred to as Wendy & Lisa in his old Revolution band — also sat in with his New Power Generation band.
Other surprise guests included Chaka Khan, who joined Prince to sing “I Feel For You” — a cover of his song that she made a monster hit in the 1980s; and old school rapper Doug E. Fresh.
The high-energy show ended on an emotional note as Prince performed “Purple Rain” and spotlighted drummer John Blackwell, whose 2-year-old daughter, Jia, accidentally drowned just days earlier. An emotional Blackwell pointed to the image of his little girl on his T-shirt, as Sheila E. embraced him and the band walked off the stage.
© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
What Prince will do at 2014 Essence Festival is a mystery, just like in 2004
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on June 16, 2014 at 2:46 PM, updated June 16, 2014 at 3:19 PM
Prince is the Essence Festival’s go-to anniversary headliner. In 2004, he played the festival’s 10-year anniversary. On July 4, 2014, he returns to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the opening night of the 20th anniversary of Essence.
Just as he did in 2004, Prince is curating his own night at Essence, selecting the artists and deciding when, and for how long, he’ll perform. And just like in 2004, exactly how the night will unfold likely will remain a mystery until the last minute – even to those in charge of the festival.
“I think we’ll have to see that night,” Essence Communications president Michelle Ebanks, the executive who oversees the festival, said recently. “Prince is working through exactly how he’s pulling (the night’s roster) together. I don’t want to say it’s going to be one way, and then they make adjustments. They’re still working out how the evening will unfold.”
What is known is this: Prince likely will play for two-plus hours on the main stage. The only other artists announced for the main stage that night are cutting-edge contemporary R&B singer and style icon Janelle Monae and Nile Rodgers, the co-founding guitarist of disco band Chic, who has produced classic albums by Madonna, Duran Duran and David Bowie. More recently, Rodgers co-wrote and played guitar on three tracks from Daft Punk’s smash “Random Access Memories,” including the hit “Get Lucky.”
Monae and Rodgers are on the bill because Prince wanted them there. Whether Rodgers will play his own show at Essence, or simply sit in with Prince’s band, is unclear. Monae is “very likely” to play her own set, according to Ebanks.
“Prince is just a tremendous collaborator,” she said. “He has his artists who he believes are important musically, culturally, as a party of that Friday evening’s experience. So it will be exciting.”
Over the years, Essence – both the magazine, and the festival — has developed a relationship with Prince. He appears on the cover of the June 2014 issue of Essence; in addition to the story about him, he also interviews Rodgers.
His inaugural 2004 Essence performance resulted from a years-long courtship. He was at the top of the festival’s wish list since the first Essence in 1995, but was either unavailable or uninterested. One year, reacting to a rumor that he might make a surprise appearance on keyboards with another artist, the festival’s producers stationed a spare Hammond B3 organ onstage just in case. But the elusive Prince did not materialize.
He attended the 2003 Essence as a guest, after Susan L. Taylor, then the head of Essence magazine, personally lobbied him at a New York party hosted by record mogul Clive Davis. In the Superdome that year, he watched Stevie Wonder from the wings of the stage. That night, he accompanied Erykah Badu to Magic Johnson’s late-night after-party at the House of Blues. The following night, Patti LaBelle acknowledged Prince’s presence from the stage.
He apparently liked what he saw and heard, as he agreed to perform the following year at Essence, reportedly for what was, at the time, the largest fee the festival had ever paid. Savvy self-promoter that he is, he likely realized that headlining the 10th anniversary Essence also would draw attention to the 20th anniversary of his classic “Purple Rain” album.
Performance times at major festivals are generally locked in weeks in advance. Days before his 2004 show, Prince still hadn’t let the Essence producers know exactly when he planned to start his show. Neither had he informed the festival about who, exactly, would precede him on the main stage.
“It’s been a creative evolution as to exactly what the structure is going to be, and it has evolved a little later than usual,” Quint Davis, the Essence Festival producer at the time, said diplomatically, days before the ’04 event. “Prince had a vision of what he wanted this night to be musically, and we evolved with that. It’s his show.”
As it turned out, his 2004 Essence gig held multiple surprises. He eventually confirmed Morris Day & the Time as an opening act. But the night of the show, an unnamed ensemble of Prince associates – including percussionist Sheila E – turned up as the surprise main stage opening act. An incognito Prince roller-skated across the stage during their set, unrecognizable in a wig, fake beard and sunglasses.
After Morris Day & the Time, he and his nine-piece New Power Generation turned in a two-plus hour show. They opened with “Musicology,” the title track of his then-current CD, followed by a 15-minute hit parade of “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star” and a truncated “When Doves Cry.” In a sly flourish, the band slipped the signature riff from “Kiss” into the “you and I engaged in a kiss” lyric from “When Doves Cry.”
Having temporarily satisfied the demand for hits, they broke into an extended funk jam that concluded with Chaka Khan sassing up “I Feel For You,” the early Prince hit she covered in 1984. Legendary funk saxophonist Maceo Parker rendered “What a Wonderful World” on alto sax. Hip-hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh also sat in.
Throughout the night, Prince was in near perpetual motion, a dervish in red, white and, briefly, a T-shirt bearing his own likeness. He draped a cloth over the “corpse” of a feedback-emitting baby blue guitar, a nod to similar Jimi Hendrix guitar sacrifices. He lounged at the side of the stage, revealing his sparkling high-heeled boots. He sang into a hand-held microphone affixed to a prop handgun, a somewhat disconcerting visual when set against his pleas for unity. He frequently tore off scintillating electric guitar solos.
“I believe in real music,” he said. “We’ve got some stars now that can’t sing and dance at the same time. That’s not the case tonight. I come from the old school.”
During a brief acoustic interlude, he sat mid-stage with a purple acoustic guitar and single-handedly held the vast Dome in thrall as he reduced “Little Red Corvette” to its acoustic essence. He dressed up “Cream” with a run of curt blues licks. Chaka Khan returned to belt her “Sweet Thing” before Prince teased out his own “Adore.”
He frequently teased fans by pausing a song, stroking his chin and considering whether he should continue. “Y’all ain’t ready for that,” he said as the faithful roared their collective disagreement.
The show was frustrating at times — reducing such perfectly crafted pop gems as “When Doves Cry” to a verse and chorus shortchanged them. Given a catalog as deep as his, omissions were unavoidable, but some were more confounding than others. Neither “1999” nor “Raspberry Beret” turned up in that show.
Granted, what he did in 2004 is about as relevant to this year’s Essence show as what he did last week – change, and improvisation, are his constants. He and his current band, Third Eye Girl, have delivered some brilliant performances over the past few months, heavy on guitar heroics. Late-night surprise shows have stretched into the wee hours.
What he will do – and when, and with whom, and for how long – at the Superdome on July 4 is a mystery. And that is how he likes it.
“Prince has a very clear vision of the experience that he would like to create,” Ebanks said. “That’s his genius. We’re privileged that he’s performing at the festival this year. He is designing that evening. We can’t wait.”