Is it the singer, or is it the song?
That was the question on the minds of both the eclectic cadre of performers and the sold out crowd at New York’s Carnegie Hall on Thursday night for a benefit show titled “The Music of Prince.” A bevy of the Purple One’s contemporaries and followers joined together to genuflect at his funky altar, with the proceeds from the show going to a number of music-related charities for kids.
This was the ninth year for the series, and in the past, several of the tribute centerpieces—including Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young—made surprise appearances at their own shows. Prince himself did not materialize last night, but there were so many fascinating interpretations of his work and explorations of his unique charisma that it was almost better without his all-seeing eyes watching over the proceedings.
The evening began relatively tamely, with the Waterboys busting out a faithful rendition of “Purple Rain.” Though he bears no physical or aesthetic resemblance to Prince, singer Mike Scott managed to nail the same kind of passion and pathos the song’s creator first sent coursing through its veins nearly 30 years ago. It was almost too perfect, and it set an uncomfortable tone early in the evening: Would this simply be two and a half hours of extremely well-executed Prince karaoke, overseen by house band the Roots?
Luckily, subsequent performers took many more liberties with Prince’s songs, and while that led to some awkward moments, their ingenuity was generally rewarded.
Comedian Sandra Bernhard’s interpretation of “Little Red Corvette” tapped into that song’s almost manic sexuality, and she dedicated it to all the women Prince’s purple stardust has covered over the years—including Apollonia, Vanity, and Sheila E. The comedians came across particularly well, actually: Fred Armisen came out to do the spoken word bit that opens “Let’s Go Crazy” (he returned later to sing on “1999” and to play the drums for the Blind Boys of Alabama), and Chris Rock’s well-received spoken-word piece touched on many of Prince’s most corporeal themes.
Meanwhile, Elvis Costello busted out the never-released 1999-era track “Moonbeam Levels,” which without context sounded a whole lot like an Elvis Costello song. Still, Costello’s smile and energy were infectious, and his harmonizing with PRINCEss was top-notch. (PRINCEss is actress Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum, and their solo take on “Darling Nikki” was charming.)
Meanwhile, DeVotchka swapped out the breezy funk of “Mountains” for a looser gypsy swing, revealing layers and dimensions otherwise buried. Talib Kweli turned “Annie Christian” into a half-rapped spoken word political stomp.
Perhaps most astonishingly, folk guitarist Bhi Bhiman transformed “When Doves Cry” into a foreboding murder ballad. In spinning the song in a different direction, Bhiman made a song everybody knew backwards into a wholly new thing. Prince is often lauded for his his incredible musicianship and his mysterious presence, but his songwriting skills are unparalleled, and the fact that “When Doves Cry” can still find a different angle after three decades is a testament to his ability to craft time-defying songs.
Still, despite the spirit of reinvention, many of the evening’s finest moments came when a performer simply found the groove and burned the house down. Kat Edmonson’s jazzy coo perfectly captured the star-reaching, tear-jerking power of “The Beautiful Ones”; Bettye Lavette seemed possessed by a pump-wearing sex spirit during her raunchy run through “Kiss”; and the Blind Boys of Alabama tapped into the gospel-graced transcendence of “The Cross” with thick harmonies and passionate pulpit pounding.
And to close out the evening, D’Angelo absolutely owned “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” before lording over the all-hands-on-deck shout-along “1999.” When he’s on, D’Angelo is one of the most jaw-dropping performers in modern pop music, and his overwhelming presence and contagious energy solidified him as an all-time great when it comes to commanding a stage. The Purple One would have been proud.