Prince Tribute Concert Setlist
That was the predominant feeling from most of Prince’s biggest fans as they filled the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul from places near and very far away, for Prince: The Official Tribute- A Celebration of Life and Music, the Nelson family’s public farewell to the music legend who died suddenly in April.
The concert itself was even in doubt in the days and weeks leading up to the date- no contract facilitated a move from US Bank Stadium to the Xcel, and near last-minute cancellations of John Mayer (recording commitments), Anita Baker (injury) and Christina Aguilera (throat issues) jeopardized the event, with key bandmates Sheila E, The Revolution, Apollonia, and Larry Graham, already missing.
But, everything somehow came together in an evening that featured eighty-five musicians playing over fifty songs, stretched to almost five hours, and dotted with several memorable performances.
St. Paul band Mint Condition got things started on the good foot, with a blazing three-song set beginning with ‘America’, but tempo was quickly killed by an overlong time to set change. Morris Day and The Time then strode out, he in a dapper lemon yellow suit, for a far too brief two-song set that if you blinked, you probably missed.
Bobby Z then appeared as another set change was occurring, and told a few heartfelt stories, including watching Prince play every instrument, when they first met at Moon Studios. He then introduced the house band for the evening, The NPG, which featured an appropriately rotating lineup and smoothed out most of the empty spaces happening earlier in the evening. Having the large band led by keyboardist Morris Hayes was well thought out, as he proved a more than ample bandleader and was present through many of Prince’s musical style periods.
Purple diehards were thrilled to see a reunion of so many side musicians and singers affiliated with Prince, from Shelby J, to Liv Warfield, Marva King, Kip Blackshire, Elisa Fiorillo Dease and Judith Hill and musicians like Donna Grantis and Ida Nielsen, guitarist Mike Scott, Levi Seacer Jr. and 90’s members Michael Bland, Tommy Barbarella, and Sonny T.
Prince’s childhood friend and musician in his own right, André Cymone filled in often, including a buoyant ‘Uptown’, compelling ‘The Ladder’, and a driving ‘Controversy’. Warfield, in flowing gown and long wig, shone her wide vocal range during ‘Hot Thing’ and Fonky Bald Headz singer Kip Blackshire energized the crowd early with ‘Anotherloverholeinyohead’ before later dueting with surprise addition Jessie J.
Pussycat Doll leader Nicole Scherzinger held back too much for her Vanity 6 cover of ‘Nasty Girl’, though fared better with ‘Baby I’m a Star’. The relatively unknown Luke James thrilled with his ‘Do Me Baby’, no doubt garnering new fans, and recent Prince cohort Judith Hill (with big hair and a flowing yellow gown) had maybe the best song selection of the night, nicely covering ‘The Cross’ and ‘How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore’.
The questionable late ‘90s-era reared its head with Doug E. Fresh adding some crowd excitement to Cymone’s ‘Pop Life’ while the lovely Portuguese Fado singer Ana Moura; though one of Prince’s favorites, seemed out of place with her native Fado language tribute then a version of ‘Walk in Sand’ (from his unreleased-in-the-US album, 20TEN) and didn’t get the tempo or some of the lyrics, to a too simmered ‘Little Red Corvette’.
Chaka Khan, herself with recent health issues, including an addiction to the same fentanyl that brought down Prince, looked radiant waving a pink fan (“like a pilgrimage to Mecca” she described her return on social media)and was in good voice for her trio of songs, with Stevie Wonder popping up to play his signature harmonica solo on ‘I Feel For You’.
The second half of the show after the intermission seemed a little more disjointed, though was not without its highlights. Recent band 3RDEYEGIRL roared things back to life with a three of the loudest songs of the night, then Bilal reprised his impressive chops from the BET Awards tribute, reprising ‘The Beautiful Ones’ and adding a stirring ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’.
Prince’s first wife Mayte, reprised the sword and bellydance performance that first caught Prince’s eye years ago, leading appropriately into ‘7’, which also found The Twinz dancing about the stage with her.
As the show went into the fourth hour, Tori Kelly (who we watched across the balcony from Prince at the Varsity Theater in 2015) started tepid with a reserved ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ but gained momentum with Wonder’s help on ‘Take Me With U’ and ‘Raspberry Beret’. “He had so many plans to make this world a better place”, Wonder would say about Prince.
Jessie J (presumably called in by promoter Irving Azoff after Aguilera was unable) tried with the falsetto ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ but overdid things on ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’; seemingly overloading the Sinead O’Connor version, while duet partner Blackshire kept to more of the Prince version, but given her replacement role, can be easily forgiven.
Stevie Wonder took to the stage first playing a Donny Hathaway song that he and Prince would play together in private, then awakened the still-remaining crowd with his own funky ‘Superstition’, before sitting for an instrumental as the stage filled with performers and family.
The evening ended somewhat oddly, with Wonder and singer Marva King hand in hand, swaying at center stage as the famous glyph symbol appeared on screen and confetti flew in the air as the NPG played ‘Purple Rain’ with Prince’s live vocal piped in as lead.
In that moment, we were reminded what was sorely missing- a near three-hundred minute review of the master’s work, but without the master’s voice, guitar, or sadly, his actual presence. “I love you” he said, as the song finished, people wiping away tears and still working through their stages of grief.
The concert proved to be some crucial healing for many fans, traveling from all over the world, to have this bit of closure in the metro that was so close to his heart; but Prince lives on in spirit, his now-museum of Paisley Park, and of course, in the music… much of which we’ve yet to hear.
NPG at Xcel Energy Center, St Paul (13 Oct 2016)