At Essence Festival, Prince is giving, Nile Rodgers is Chic, and Janelle Monáe's back in black (and white).
When Prince last played Essence Festval in 2004, he played a hits-oriented show. When he returned last night, the hits formed the backbone of a much richer musical experience. He was expansive and adventurous as he added such deep cuts as the encore “Days of Wild,” “Partyman” from Batman and “Sometimes it Snows in April” from Parade. He slowed down and souled up “Little Red Corvette” and stripped down the already spare “When Doves Cry.” He transformed “Let’s Go Crazy” into hip-grinding blues rock, quoted “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” and “Dancing Machine,” and used the most pedestrian idea of the night, the new “FunkNRoll,” to get to a jam that led to a beautifully loose, very funky ending with The Time’s “The Bird,” “Jungle Love” and Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life.” The last three were all released in 1984, the same year as Purple Rain, and those albums combine to mark an awe-inspiring hot streak.
Still, you can’t separate the genius Prince from the wacky Prince, and there were a lot of nutty touches starting with his Solid Gold Dancers-like team of men and women that gamely ran onstage periodically, did some ragged but committed choreography brimming with positivity, then scampered off again. His wardrobe came from the psychedelic market outside the Star Wars cantina, and his poor 3rdEyeGirl bassist Ida Nielsen was saddled with an outfit Chris Squire of Yes swore off decades ago. My guess is that he has a thing about the look of keyboards because he obscured his behind a video screen, and his other keyboard player appeared to be standing amidst voting booths or in a sleeper sofa mid-fold.
That eccentricity is part of Prince’s briliance, though. He has never been limited by practicality or other people’s tastes, and Friday night, he was generous in ways that matter. He played two encores including one after “Purple Rain,” and he gave Trombone Shorty a half-hour of stage time and numerous solos during the closing jam, though he left Shorty to awkwardly figure out what to do with himself for part of that time. He had 19 people onstage for much of the show including 11 horn players, and his performing entourage alone had to exceed 30 people. That may have been overkill, but it also created visual and musical spectacle, and if it takes a village to fuel Prince's fire, then bring the village.
- I don’t remember the last time I heard an audience demand not just an encore, but one song--"Purple Rain." Many started to file out during its closing instrumental coda figuring that houselights would follow momentarily, but Prince and his soundman let last notes of the song linger and linger with the stage lights down to subtly signal that we’re not done yet. There was still a mad dash by people to get back to their seats when he returned, but Prince gave them a fair chance.
- Friday night was the antithesis of Beyoncé’s production extravaganza last year at Essence. Janelle Monáe had a token video projection package, Prince had smoke jets early on, confetti cannons at the end, and a minimal, slightly obvious video package that included purple rain and a falling dove feather. I never missed the production though, and liked how my eye was rarely drawn from the performers in front of me, Nile Rodgers and Chic made me wish they’d gone with even less. The mirror ball and disco dance floor imagery was amateurish, with clip art lettering spelling out bland commands including “Move Your Feet” and “Move Your Body.” At the same time, it was touching to see footage from Soul Train of a younger Chic, with the focus on bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson. Both have passed away, and showing them in their heyday was a far more effective and subtle remembrance than words would have mustered. A similarly touching moment: Rodgers coming onstage alone with his camera to take pictures of the audience “so I don’t forget.”
- Rodgers is the only original member currently in Chic, but the original members were all session players first and no one stamped their imprint on the songs aside from Rodgers and Edwards. Luther Vandross sang with the band, but even his contributions blended into the group sound. As such, seeing a reconstituted version of the band didn’t seem like a serious diminution of the original experience. You only heard meaningful differences in singer Kimberly Davis going to more gospel-like places than Luci Martin or Alfa Anderson went, and in Jerry Barnes’ decision to be himself and not try to step into Edwards’ very specific shoes.
- Despite Rodgers framing the Chic set as an “old school disco party,” it never felt that limited, nor did the audience respond as if the music came from a moment with particular dance moves and styles. The crowd invited onstage for the set-ending “Good Times” worked out some Soul Train moves and an Electric Slide, but no disco.
- I like Janelle Monáe, but so far, the Essence audience has yet to prove to be her audience. Last night, she opened with cheeky nerve as Elvis’ late career theme music, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” introduced the musical overture played by her band as someone from her entourage rolled a straightjackedt Monáe onstage on a dolly. She shed that to reveal a high style version of Alex and his droogs’ wardrobe from A Clockwork Orange, so before she sang a note she’d asked her audience to leap a few cultural divides to connect with her. The dome is also punishing for opening acts, who often play to more empty seats than full ones in the Superdome. The high rollers who can afford the best tickets rarely are in their places for the opening acts, so Monáe had a lot of space for her high concept glam funk rock to cover. On social media, people in the back complained they didn’t get it, and even in the front it took a cover of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” for her to find a connecting point with the audience.
- In the past, comedian Nephew Tommy filled between acts, running dance contests, comedy spots and sponsor presentations in the interim. Friday night, he introduced Doug E. Fresh in the set change between Monáe and Rodgers, and Fresh ran a dance party and continued it betwen Rodgers and Prince. As a result, the dome had far more energy than it often has. Hopefully, Essence noticed.
- Crossover Countdown: 1) Prince appeared nearly out of thin air with a guitar to play part of the closing riff to Janelle Monáe’s cover of his “Let’s Go Crazy,” then left. 2) Janelle Monáe came onstage during Rodgers’ set to dance to “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and stayed to sing backing vocals on “We Are Family,” which also included a guest spot by Kathy Sledge. 3) Prince once again steps briskly onstage and into place to take the solo on Nile Rodgers’ cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which Rodgers co-wrote and produced. 4) Prince brought Monáe out to dance with him during the final encore of “Days of Wild.”