The Roots, D’Angelo, Bilal, Talib Kweli, Chris Rock (yes, Chris Rock) and over a dozen others united for “The Music of Prince at Carnegie Hall” in New York City on Thursday night, a benefit fundraiser for music education programs. This ninth installment of Carnegie Hall’s annual tribute series—celebrating the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones in the past—was the first to feature an African-American singer-songwriter. From Dirty Mind’s “Sister” to “Ten” (originally by Prince’s jazz band, Madhouse), performers interpreted Prince tunes from 1980-1987, ranging from the Grammy-winning “Kiss” to unreleased gems like “Moonbeam Levels.”
Prince and the Revolution recorded Purple Rain and Parade at the zenith of the pop star’s popularity; the Revolution’s guitarist Wendy Melvoin (of Wendy & Lisa fame) and saxophonist Eric Leeds played on many of the evening’s songs. The night began with European folk-rock band The Waterboys getting “Purple Rain” out the way, notable for fiddler Steve Wickham’s transcendent solo in place of Prince’s original guitar. The funk instrumental “Ten” followed, but then, noticeably pregnant comedienne Maya Rudolph approached the stage with singer Gretchen Lieberum—her partner in a Prince cover band, Princess—to attack “I Wonder U.” Originally only a minute and 40 seconds long, Wendy and The Roots’ funk flow stretched the track out to a good five minutes.
Organist Booker T. Jones (of the legendary Booker T. & the M.G.s) came next, with kids from the New York Youth Choir and songstress Diane Birch all interpreting “Raspberry Beret.” The light moment gave way to more funk: this time by Wendy’s twin, Susannah Melvoin, and singer Paul Peterson. The two are well known by Princeophiles as lead singers of The Family, the extremely short-lived Prince protégé band most famous for “The Screams of Passion” and “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
The reunited Family now goes by fDeluxe (long story). Susannah Melvoin and Paul Peterson shimmied through “High Fashion” and “Mutiny,” then conceded the stage to comedienne Sandra Bernhard. After a characteristically edgy monologue about New York’s “Korean salad bars” among other things, she dedicated “Little Red Corvette” to Prince exes Apollonia, Vanity and Sheila E.
The Roots rested up while the rock quartet DeVotchKa ripped into “Mountains.” Poetry in the song’s opulent lyrics (“Once upon a time in a land called Fantasy/17 mountains stood so high…”) were arguably drowned out with Prince’s falsetto, but got more attention stripped bare by DeVotchKa’s Neil Urata. And their trumpets were killer. Sri Lankan-American folk-rocker Bhi Bhiman proved that great concerts, like great albums, depend on the right combination of songs. His acoustic “When Doves Cry” brought forward the lyrics to what’s probably Prince’s most autobiographical song, setting the stage for the show’s sea change.
Tears welled up in the eyes of pixieish jazz singer Kat Edmonson by the end of “The Beautiful Ones,” which she rendered with a pianist whose plaintive playing was already to cry for. The Purple Rain ballad was easily the night’s most arresting moment. And yet: the bluesy, soulful Alice Smith approached “Pop Life” acoustically with her perfect compliment—the bluesy, soulful Citizen Cope—mining the melancholy despair of someone putting their “million dollar check in someone else’s box” (Prince’s all-time best double entendre). DeVotchKa, Bhiman, Edmonson and Smith weighted Prince’s lyrical verses and emotional heft over his grooves. It worked.
With the 22-song set over halfway done, highlights still came fast and furiously. MC Talib Kweli made Controversy’s “Annie Christian” his own by inserting the names of Tupac Shakur, Trayvon Martin and other violence victims in Prince’s plea for gun control. Chris Rock inserted himself in Prince’s spoken outro to “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (“Could I tickle you so hard you’d laugh and laugh… like you just heard some motherfu–ing Chris Rock?!”). And 67-year-old soul singer Bettye LaVette added some cheeky profanity of her own to “Kiss.”
Maya Rudolph (daughter of the late R&B great Minnie Riperton, needless to say) returned, her pregnant belly protruding out from a Dirty Mind-era trench coat, to rip into “Darling Nikki” with a sexy, comical seriousness. Bilal—who left OMG memories with New Yorkers with his “International Lover” cover at Brooklyn’s BAM Café back in 1999—freaked many different musical movements in a genre mashup with The Roots on “Sister,” Prince’s infamous ode to incest. British rock legend Elvis Costello put his spin on a song only familiar to hardcore Prince bootleggers, the apocalyptic 1999 outtake, “Moonbeam Levels.”
And then… D’Angelo.
The formerly embattled soul singer arrived lucid and loosey-goosey, jumping in from offstage a few verses into Prince’s Sign o’ the Times rave-up, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night.” Less creatively interpretive than most of the other artistes of the night, D’Angelo played it like a fan singing to himself in the shower over the past 26 years. Still everyone stood, grooving side-to-side, throwing hands in the air. Finally “1999” brought the entire cast onstage to jam, with D’Angelo still at the fireball center, for a stirring conclusion to the night.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.