Last night, a star-studded, nearly five-hour tribute to Prince at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota featured performances that ranged from the transcendent (Stevie Wonder's solo keyboard rendition of Donnie Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free") to the puzzling (a sword-brandishing bellydance routine from Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia). But the most startling thing about the event is that it happened at all.
Prince's surviving siblings announced the date back in July, promising a major tribute at the Minnesota Vikings' brand new stadium in Minneapolis without naming a lineup. But superstars were so slow to commit that cancellation rumors arose, the show moved across the river to a smaller venue, and, even in the past week, big names like John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and Anita Baker dropped out.
The night started briskly enough, as St. Paul R&B band Mint Condition capped a three-song set with "When Doves Cry." Maybe too briskly, even: Surely the Time, with Morris Day spryly recreating his classic dance moves for "Jungle Love" in a resplendent canary yellow suit, could have been allowed to play more than two numbers instead of being hustled offstage faster than you could say "oh-wee-oh-wee-oh."
For much of the night, singers who had worked with Prince but were hardly household names – Shelby J, Liv Warfield, Marva King, Kip Blackshire, Elisa Fiorillo Dease, Judith Hill – rotated ably through hits and deep cuts alike. Prince's childhood pal and early bandmate, André Cymone, served as a charismatic anchor, taking lead on five songs, including a proudly belted "Uptown" and a trippily cooed "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker."
But many of the Prince-unaffiliated guests underwhelmed. On a scale from 1 to Vanity 6, former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger's "Nasty Girl" was a 3.5 tops. Tori Kelly rocked a sane "Let's Go Crazy" and upstaged an adequate "Diamonds and Pearls" with the kind of over-emotive facial expressions designed to manipulate home viewers on televised singing competitions. Jessie J's duet with Blackshire on "Nothing Compares to U" was criminally oversung.
Others fared better. Bilal's "The Beautiful Ones," a repeat of his BET Awards performance, was masterfully Prince-worthy, his voice soaring to the rafters as his body collapsed to the ground, and Luke James unfurled a truly cunnilingual falsetto on "Do Me Baby."
Two different lineups of Prince's backing group, the New Power Generation, both led by keyboardist Morris Hayes and backed with a full horn section, served as house band. The late-era version onstage for the first set was hobbled by the rudimentary timekeeping of Prince confidante Kirk Johnson, but drummer Michael Bland and bassist Sonny Thompson laid down a real funk groove when the original early Nineties NPG crew took over.
As you might expect from a five-hour show that was supposed to be 60 minutes shorter, the pacing was odd. Portuguese fado star Ana Moura's languid "Little Red Corvette" was much too slow. And as the show extended past its scheduled 11 p.m. end time and old school MC Doug E. Fresh pulled out his own oldie, "La Di Da Di," there was a sense that the rapper was stalling as the musicians figured out what was supposed to happen next.
But soon the legends delivered. Chaka Khan, brandishing a pink hand fan, led with "Betcha," a track Prince produced for her in 1998, and her own classic "Sweet Thing." Then Stevie Wonder joined her to recreate his harmonica solo on "I Feel For You" and to duet on "1999," which got off to a rough start before going nuclear.
When Wonder returned later in the show, he was gracious enough to allow Tori Kelly to sing with him on "Take Me With You" and "Raspberry Beret." And his remarks on Prince felt as genuine and heartfelt as everything else he says or sings or plays. "He had so many plans to make this world a better place to live in," Wonder said, before introducing the Hathaway song as one he and Prince used to play together. He then followed a hot "Superstition" with an instrumental jam that the band carried forward after he left the stage.
Wonder returned for the inevitable finale of "Purple Rain," during which the band accompanied a vocal track of Prince himself singing. It was an eerie and frankly unsatisfying way to end the show, especially since one of the few singers on earth who could do it justice was standing right there on stage, wiping away tears. But the strangeness of the moment, and of the night overall, is somehow fitting. Prince has been gone for nearly six months now, and we're still figuring out how to properly mourn.
Mint Condition "America" "D.M.S.R." "When Doves Cry"
Nicole Scherzinger "Nasty Girl" "Baby, I'm a Star"
Luke James "Do Me, Baby" "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World"
Judith Hill "The Cross" "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore"
"The Ladder" (André Cymone) "Cream" (Elisa Fiorillo Dease) "Ballad of Dorothy Parker" (André Cymone)
Doug E. Fresh "Pop Life" (with André Cymone) "Housequake"
Ana Maura "Walk in Sand" "Little Red Corvette"
Chaka Khan "Betcha" "Sweet Thing" "I Feel For You" (with Stevie Wonder) "1999" (with Stevie Wonder)
3rdeyegirl "Pretzelbodylogic" (with Shelby J) "Plectrumelectrum" "Wow" (with Liv Warfield)
Bilal "The Beautiful Ones" "If I Was Your Girlfriend"
"Musicology" (Shelby J) Mayte Garcia, dance performance "Computer Blue" (André Cymone) "I Would Die 4 U" (Marva King) "Sexy M.F." (Tony Mosley) "Gett Off" (Doug E. Fresh) "Sometimes It Snows in April" (Elisa Fiorillo Dease) "Girls & Boys" (Marva King) "She's Always in My Hair" (Kip Blackshire) "Controversy" (André Cymone) "La Di Da Di" (Doug E. Fresh)
Tori Kelly "Let's Go Crazy" "Diamonds and Pearls" "Take Me With You" (with Stevie Wonder) "Raspberry Beret" (with Stevie Wonder)
Jessie J. "I Wanna Be Your Lover" "Nothing Compares 2 U" (with Kip Blackshire)
Stevie Wonder "Someday We'll All Be Free" "Superstition" Instrumental jam "Purple Rain"