The Music of Prince: Carnegie Hall 7 March 2013

Michael Dorf has done it again. Another wonderful tribute concert at Carnegie Hall to raise money for music arts education. This time he gathered musicians together for a tribute to the music of Prince. One thing that became very clear – Prince’s music is so over-the-top fantastic that it almost doesn’t matter who is singing, especially when you have a band like The Roots as the house band – with Wendy Melvoin (The Revolution) on guitar and backing vocals for some acts! One of the surprise guests was Eric Leeds (from The Family and The Revolution) on sax, who played on several songs.

Before the show I’d read the story of how Prince borrowed Captain Kirk Douglas’ guitar and then smashed it on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It seemed so out of character and it made me dislike Prince just a little. But then The Waterboys came out and played an electrifying version of “Purple Rain” with Steve Wickham’s violin solo replacing the guitar solo that sent a shock through the entire audience, which was so strong that I didn’t think we were going to survive until the end of the night. And this was just the first song.

As in previous years, Rita Houston from WFUV did the introductions from backstage. She bunched them up so sometimes it was difficult for me to remember who was up next, especially since I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the artists. It didn’t help that the surprise guests weren’t announced at all. We were sitting way up in the balcony in restricted legroom seats. You would think that someone as short as me would not have a problem with restricted legroom. Guess again. When I sat down my knees were pressing so hard against the metal railing that I was in real pain. Luckily the guy behind me was very very tall so I could sit on the edge of my upturned seat for part of the show. That became uncomfortable so I put the seat down and then I had to put my coat between my knees and the railing so as not to cry out in pain. The show was sold out so there was nowhere else to go. I’m not sure how violaleeblue was able to stand it. rtb had a seat next to railing so she was not squished but it still wasn’t a comfortable seat.

Leeds joined the Roots for “Ten” and then PRINCEss joined both for “I Wonder U,” with Melvoin also on vocals, and had me swaying and rocking in my seat.

Next up Fred Armisen recited the lyrics to “Let’s Go Crazy.” He was one of the surprise guests and we were so far up that rtb didn’t recognize him. Somehow I did – one of only two people I could really recognize all night. Most of the rest I got wrong.

The Young Audiences New York Youth Choir were joined by Diane Birch for “Raspberry Beret.” One of the girls in the choir was wearing a raspberry beret. Booker T. Jones was put to extremely poor use here – you couldn’t hear his keyboards. But the percussion was nice and loud. Extra disappointing because this was the only time Booker T was onstage (except for the encore).

Nina Persson (lead singer for The Cardigans performed a rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that was pretty faithful to Sinead O’Connor’s version. This means that fDeluxe did not get to sing the song they had originally recorded when they were The Family. Instead Susannah Melvoin, St. Paul Peterson, and Leeds gave us sexy hot versions of “High Fashion” and “Mutiny.” Melvoin danced all over the stage in a gorgeous white pantsuit and white heels. At one point she removed the jacket and threw it on the floor. She is still the sexy woman that Prince was once engaged to.

One of the highlights of the night was Sandra Bernhard’s “Little Red Corvette.” I know that she used to perform this in her routine years ago and I’d always wanted to see it. Bernhard starts slowly with a poem that is parts funny and sexy. There were shout-outs to all of Prince’s women – Apollonia, Sheila E, Vanity, Wendy & Lisa – and then she started an almost spoken rendition of the song that oozed sex. She hit high notes and then went very low – as did her body as she bounced ‘down to the ground’ and showed us how funny and gritty the song is.

DeVotchKa performed an gypsy-influenced version of “Mountains” with acoustic guitar, woman on tuba, horn, sax, violin, and percussion. There was no funk to be found.

One big surprise for a lot of the audience was Bhi Bhiman on “When Doves Cry.” Bhiman came out with his acoustic and was alone on stage. There was a smattering of applause with the loudest coming from rtb and me. He totally transformed the song. Gone was the R&B wailing and funky beat. Instead we got a pure Americana ballad. The audience exploded when he was finished. It was so exciting to witness the moment when Bhiman may have moved up several rungs on the star ladder.

Kat Edmonson did a gorgeous version of “The Beautiful Ones” accompanied only by piano. Her voice is beautiful and reminded me a little of Kate Bush.

The Blind Boys of Alabama (of which there seems fewer every time I see them) took us down the gospel path with “The Cross.” The song fit their style beautifully. Afterwards, rtb said Armisen was playing drums for them. Another thing I missed.

Alice Smith and her new husband Citizen Cope performed “Pop Life,” which would have sounded a lot better if there was some bottom on her vocal mix. Instead she sounded screechy with the poor mix.

Talib Kweli rapped and sang “Annie Christian” and besides the song’s shout-out to Lennon, Kweli included Trayvor Martin and Tupac Shakur. It was very compelling.

Bilal killed it with “Sister.” Slow start, falsetto to bass – he used his body and voice to sell that song and if you didn’t listen to the lyrics you would think it was a very sexy song.

Surprise guest Chris Rock imitated Prince with a spoken word “If I Was Your Girlfriend” that was dramatic and sincere and funny.

What can I say about Bettye LaVette? She did one of the sexiest versions of “Kiss” that you’ll ever hear. She danced and sang in a purple jacket and black pants with heels and looked a little like Prince up there.

PRINCEss is Maya Rudolph’s and Gretchen Lieberum’s Prince cover band. Rudolph’s pregnancy did not prevent her from dancing and sexing it up with “Darling Nikki.” It was an outrageously appropriate version and I’d love to see their full act. They also sang back-up for Elvis Costello on the unreleased “Moonbeam Levels.” Now I know why it was so unfamiliar and why it sounded more like an Elvis Costello song.

We didn’t get Prince to make an appearance but ending the night with D’Angelo was almost as good. “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” rocked and funked and souled and drove everyone to their feet. Even Armisen joined in on the vocals and PRINCEss and fDeluxe sang back-up. By the time everyone came out for “1999” Carnegie Hall’s roof was raised muddafukka.

By Carene Lydia Lopez