Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons - Prince performing at Coachella in 2008
Prince is one of the truly transcendent performers in the history of rock and roll. He has one of the genre’s greatest wails, his utterly confident guitar play was consistently spectacular, and that he could competently play every instrument under the sun makes him a unique and special specimen in popular music. But he remains somehow underrated as a songwriter.
His greatest songs exuded a sense of unbridled emotion at all times, and while he was nearly impossible to duplicate, because of his incredible performance talent, there is such a sense of fun to his music, that it’s deeply enjoyable in any voice. Speaking as somebody who has turned terrible renditions of multiple Prince songs into karaoke favorites, because who couldn’t love a Prince song, I feel I figured out some sort of life hack.
This is why the Prince tribute concert, “Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince,” which aired on CBS on Tuesday night was such a perfect idea . Prince is a musical institution beloved by all of the greatest artists alive, so filling a set list of Prince’s unimpeachable catalog with top-notch performers is like shooting fish in a barrel.
Here are the five performances that stood out to me.
“Controversy,” performed by St. Vincent: The multi-instrumentalist, who is noted for her iconoclastic stage persona, covering “Controversy,” is the exact correct call. The song is hardly a deep cut, but certainly the least ubiquitous song at that point in the night (following “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U” and “Nothing Compares 2 U”). It is allowed to breathe with St. Vincent’s spacey new wave vocals, the band’s horn section is given a chance to shine, and the outro guitar solo fits the Prince aesthetic far more accurately than the standard top 40-stylyzed tributes that have become the standard in the four years since Prince’s passing. Is it better than the original? Of course not. But it was the special’s first performance that fit Prince’s aesthetic.
“Little Red Corvette”/”When Doves Cry”/”Kiss” (Medley), performed by Usher: Having covered Prince at the Grammys proper, Usher’s participation in this made sense. And he quickly moved from a competent verse/chorus of “Little Red Corvette,” a fine but totally conventional song, and moved into “When Doves Cry,” one of the most startling extremely popular songs ever recorded. Usher followed it with a song that is only slightly more conventional in “Kiss.” The R&B artist’s style has always been more Michael Jackson than Prince, but it works here – Usher can’t rip through amazing guitar solos like Prince, but he can dance and command a stage and hit a high note like Michael, and that’s not exactly a bad thing. Jackson always aimed to be James Brown in a somewhat transparent way, but the end result is similar to if James Brown covered Prince, which is pretty amazing in its own right.
“Jungle Love”/”Cool”/”The Bird” (Medley), performed by Morris Day and the Time: Day was a friend and contemporary of Prince who agreed to portray the villain in the film “Purple Rain.” Prince wrote “Jungle Love,” and while Morris Day is no Prince, he’s a terrific frontman in his own right, and the song remains an unimpeachable jam, even if it is now associated as a bad guy’s entrance music thanks to the movie. And while I never felt quite the same affection to “The Bird,” there’s something about seeing Day sing it with the same swagger he did in 1984 that warms my otherwise-cynical heart.
“Raspberry Beret,” performed by Beck: For all of the acclaim Prince gets from conventional R&B performers, very few artists since him more resemble Prince’s attitude toward music than Beck. So a foray into Prince’s psychedelic pop side makes all the sense in the world. The interpretation is largely straightforward – not necessarily a bad thing but hard to make it stand out from the crowd – but watching Beck, by all accounts a geeky musical introvert, compel the crowd to clap and sing along, resonates on a night devoted to Prince. That’s what Prince was. It’s beautiful to see it live on.
“Purple Rain,” performed by Mavis Staples and the Revolution: Inspired by Bob Seger, the song bore enough resemblance to Journey that Prince checked with the group to make sure it was okay if he released it, and it’s so universally beloved by the R&B-heavy crowd at the Prince Grammy tribute that to close it on any other song would have seemed absurd. The power of this closer isn’t in Staples herself, still a capable vocalist if not quite what the now-80-year-old once was – it is the very idea that this is happening. It’s the idea that Wendy Melvoin, a deeply and perpetually underrated part of Peak Prince’s sound, could stand out and rip off something resembling Prince’s breathtaking solo. It’s that, 36 years later, this song still has emotional punch.