Let there be no doubt: Prince is one of the most important figures in popular music in the last half-century—a diminutive figure in life, but a towering giant as a singer, a songwriter, a guitarist, a live performer, and a studio producer, blurring the lines between R&B, soul, funk, pop, rock, psychedelia, and genres that have not even been named yet.
The man is gone at the far-too-early age of 57. But his influence will endure. And the music, of course, is immortal.
Sound Opinions will devote a special episode to Prince’s career and legacy next week. And several weeks ago, long before the sad news that broke today, my partner Greg Kot and I chose Purple Rain to highlight as this summer’s special Sound Opinions at the Movies free screening in Millennium Park on Aug. 23. That will be an emotional evening, now. As indeed is this one.
Deadlines loom. The phone is ringing. There is much, much more to say. But at the moment, let me just share one of my favorite songs, and the review I wrote on April 24, 1998, for The Chicago Sun-Times of what stands as my favorite of the many times I was lucky enough to see the artist in concert—an incredible show in part because it showed his generosity toward other musicians, as well as his singular genius.
Even the most dedicated fans have had doubts about the recent recordings by the artist formerly known as Prince. Since his “emancipation” from Warner Bros., he’s been cleaning out his vaults and releasing loads of quickly-sketched, half-baked ideas.
The Artist, as he’s now known, seemed adrift in a sea of confusion and egotism, producing occasional flashes of the old genius and heaping mounds of self-indulgent crap.
The Minneapolis musician has surprised us before, but it has never been as welcome as Friday night. In an electrifying, tightly honed and extremely well-focused two and a half-hour set, he razed the Aragon, performing better than I or any of the fans around me had ever seen, and restoring my faith not only in his abilities but in live music.
That last comment sounds like hyperbole, I know. But the Artist’s sold-out show begs the comparison to one the night before by the Rolling Stones at the United Center. Those lazy, greedy old superstars coasted through the most expensive rock concert ever to hit Chicago, and fans accepted this mediocrity without a single complaint.
In stark contrast, the Artist took joy in every note, challenging himself and his audience, taking chances, daring to fail but succeeding wildly. People could complain about the paucity of his signature tunes (though he did offer a reworked “Purple Rain,” stripped of some of the pomp but as grandiose as ever). Those people would be sadly misguided, because funk, soul and R&B just don’t get any better.
The show took the form of a ‘70s-style soul revue. At the heart was the New Power Generation: drummer Kirk Johnson, keyboardist Morris Hayes, bassist Rhonda Smith, guitarist Mike Scott and backing vocalist Marva King. They’re definitely the Artist’s best band since the Revolution; they may even be better.
Resplendent in a wild white outfit, the Artist conducted the group and moved between his symbol-shaped guitar and keyboards. He opened with a few of his own jams, then brought out soul legend Larry Graham, veteran of Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station. They tore through the classics “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “Everyday People,” which, they noted, is “not about a Toyota.”
Indeed, it was about fuzz bass, a killer groove, unbridled energy, passion, love and lust—amen and hallelujah to that! The next guest was the Artist’s old pal Chaka Khan, always a bountiful presence, especially when she’s wailing on Rufus dusties like “Sweet Thing” and “Tell Me Something Good.”
“Old school” was a word we heard several times, from the third guest, rapper Doug E. Fresh, and others. But there was nothing nostalgic about the show. This “new power soul” was vital music for partying like it’s 1999. Through it all, the Artist joked, smiled, danced with members of the audience hauled up onstage and brought us higher and higher with his playing and energy. The weird little prodigy never seemed so alive.
All this bodes well for a future in which the Artist gives up trying to impress or make statements and just enjoys playing music. “You know, they say I’m a failure if I sell 100,000 copies,” he said. “But 100,000 people is a lot of friends to have.”
Again: Amen and hallelujah to that.