As promised the music of Prince was celebrated last night at Carnegie Hall by The Roots and special guests comprising an assemblage of such talent that, as drummer/bandleader/mastermind Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson pointed out: “maybe once in 5 or 6 years you get a collection of musicians of this caliber all in one place.” The assemblage included Talib Kweli, Bilal, The Water Boys, Chris Rock, fDeluxe (fka The Family), Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum (collectively known as Princess), Alice Smith & Citizen Cope, Bhi Bhiman, Booker T. Jones, Elvis Costello, Bettye Lavette, Blind Boys of Alabama, Sandra Bernhard, Fred Armisen, Devoshka, D’Angelo and (whew) probably some people we forgot.
Not surprisingly the backstage was a veritable meatlocker of celebrity flesh as performers who’d came through one by one to rehearse during the day all shared the wings at once, roughly as many stars per square foot as commuters on a Tokyo subway car. The funny exchanges and cries of recognition were enough to make you realize that people at a certain level of talent and fame really do all live together on a planet (or island, as the case maybe) apart from the rest of us. Favorite moment: Chris Rock shuffling through the throng to the beat of “Little Red Corvette” only to stop short and exclaim in recognition: “Elvis. Motherfuckin. Costello.”
Onstage, Rock’s delivery of the monologue from “If I Was Your Girlfriend” was a moment on par with the infamous “Yeezy Taught Me” skit. Another high point was Bilal’s rendition of “Sister” – achieving the same rock-out intensity as his City Winery performance but amplified by the cathedral-like acoustics of Carnegie–prompting an almost frightened look on faces of the older white people sitting in the front row– as was Talib Kweli shouting out Sandy Hook, Trayvon Martin, 2pac, Biggie, MLK & Malcolm X during the gun control verse on “Annie Christian.”
D’Angelo’s “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” was almost an ad-lib for ad-lib recreation of the version performed on Prince’s ‘Sign O’ The Times’ tour. We were almost hoping they’d go as far as D’Angelo getting behind the drum kit and ?uestlove going center stage to do Sheila E’s rap like in the “Sign O’ The TImes’ concert film–and while we’re on the subject of shouldas, in the Prince tribute of our dreams the beat from “When Doves Cry” will be played on an actual lunchroom table. Nevertheless, Bhi Bhiman‘s almost atonal voice-and-guitar version based on Prince’s original blues demo truly made the listener appreciate the purple one as a composer (as well as a rock star/showman/sex symbol). Besides Bilal, Princess‘ “Darling Nikki,” and Bettye Lavette‘s “Kiss” got great crowd responses. The “1999” finale was absolutely amazing with the entire line-up returning to the stage (never, NEVER thought we’d see D’Angelo dance with Sandra Bernhard) for a rousing group hug of a sing-along.
Much of the night’s reverence was focused on Wendy and Susannah Malvoin of The Revolution and The Family (performing as the revamped fDeluxe) with all the repressed emotion of recognizing largely unsung heroes–making the absence of the night’s nominal guest of honor a weird blessing since ironically he surely would have upstaged much of the musical greatness that unfolded. In perhaps the most fitting tribute to the genius and caprice of the purple sprite, Captain Kirk Douglas of The Roots played the soul out of the very same guitar Prince smashed on the set of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last week–and then paid to repair.