I love U baby
But, just not like I love my guitar
Uh uh, not like I love my guitar
— Prince, “Guitar”
Ground lights shine up at the New Orleans Superdome, changing the stadium’s color scheme to reflect each night’s theme. This Fourth of July at the 20th anniversary of the Essence Music Festival, the entire Dome was bathed in purple as a record 45,000 grown-n-sexy folks herded their way inside to witness the timeless genius of Prince.
I love Prince. I consider him the greatest rock musician of all time. I even sang and played guitar in more than one Prince tribute band. I am a fan who places no musical demands on The Artist; I’m happy hearing him pursue whatever muse he’s currently chasing, no matter how obtuse. Recent online videos showed him and his new all-girl band, 3rd Eye Girl, playing groovy, guitar-heavy, virtuosic pseudo-metal with long prog-rock bridges—and for all of Prince’s various talents, I love his guitar playing the most. Either way, I assumed he could do nothing to make me regret spending $100 apiece for two tickets.
Now that Prince’s Fourth of July concert has passed, my assessment mirrors that of New Orleans’ resident Prince expert, DJ Soul Sister, who stated afterward, “Prince put on a great show tonight … Prince can do no wrong.”
But while Prince did sing and dance for two straight hours while leading his amazing band through a stunning array of revolutionary pop singles, I can’t get around the fact that, out of more than two-dozen songs, Prince played guitar on just two songs.
Photo via Prince
As Prince blasted through his greatest hits set, I imagined him backstage beforehand, reduced to playing The Kid from Purple Rain, with the Essence Fest honchos hovering over, ordering him, “Listen Kid, that crowd out there is grown-n-sexy, and they don’t abide by all that heavy metal guitar solo bullshit, you feel me? So, you get out there, and you dance, and you stick to the hits.”
“Grown-n-sexy” is the self-identification of the Essence Fest crowd. Traditionally, this older crowd looks and smells amazing. The fest’s music reflects the unofficial dress code (this year hosting Alicia Keys, Trey Songz, Mary J Blige, and Lionel Ritchie), and the small margin of rap music that is allowed (this year Nas) is decidedly controversy free. As this year’s crowd awaited Prince in the Dome, human beatbox Doug E. Fresh MC’d over a set of pre-recorded slow jams meant to pump up the crowd: “Who here is over 40?” Doug E shouted, to big applause. “Who here is over 50?!” he asked, to bigger applause. Doug gave a shout-out to Jesse Jackson, seated near the front of the stage. Tyler Perry was also in the house. Both men are grown-n-sexy.
Middle-aged white folks like me and my wife (who customized a shiny gold “Love Symbol” onto her pregnant belly) numbered pretty low, but with all of us combined, Billboard magazine predicted this year’s Essence ticket sales would exceed 2013’s record number by over 10 percent—and 2013’s Beyoncé Essence had seen a 30 percent increase from 2012. Essence now draws a crowd bigger than Coachella or Lollapalooza.
Before Katrina, I’d heard local stories that Essence invited Prince to play every year. Prince often said “maybe,” and so supposedly Essence kept a special truck full of whatever specific equipment Prince would need to just show up and jam—which of course he never did. Then in 2004, Prince finally agreed to headline. When I interviewed DJ Soul Sister for my recent NPR piece on Prince, she named his 2004 Essence show as her favorite concert ever: “He had all these special guests!” she gushed. “He’d be like, ‘Okay, here’s Maceo Parker! Here’s Chaka Kahn! Here’s Larry Graham! Here’s Wendy! Here’s Sheila E! It was one after the other!”
Photo via Prince
But this Fourth of July Prince offered no surprise guests. Before his set, Prince did pop out to shred on hyperactive opener Janelle Monáe’s loyal version of “Let’s Go Crazy”. Then later, dressed in sunglasses and leather, Prince reappeared during Nile Rodgers’ set to noodle a few bars on the Rogers-produced David Bowie hit, “Let’s Dance”.
At almost 11:30pm (an hour behind schedule), Prince finally took the mic, promising to play “14 hits in a row!” Wielding his axe, he led a slow, T-Rex stomp version of “Let’s Go Crazy”. He then put the guitar aside to do about two-dozen songs without it.
Aside from that, he played no other instruments. Any real Prince fan knows that he almost always plays piano at his shows and often will grab the bass guitar and/or sit behind the drums for a spell. But on July Fourth he stuck strictly to singing and dancing. He did maintain perfect interaction with his four singers and dozen dancers; Prince is a truly great dancer, seemingly everywhere at once, displaying a constant flow of cool, fun, and funny moves. His voice, too, was in top form, especially the falsetto he chirps out so gracefully. But like Andre 3000 on The Love Below, Prince all but ignored his greatest talent.
The show was still fun and impressive but, designed for casual fans, sometimes felt like ’80s night to me. I do acknowledge that Prince has millions of people begging him to play all the hits back-to-back like this all the time, and so it’s almost cynical of me to be the one guy complaining that Prince wasn’t more self-indulgent … but here we are.
Prince certainly didn’t just serve up reheated oldies; his big band, built around Third Eye Girl, pulled off amazing musical stunts during new arrangements of old classics like the slowed down “Let’s Go Crazy” and a ballad take on “Little Red Corvette”. The band gave “U Got the Look” a subtler funk (and the new, holier Prince still suggested aloud that we “get to rammin”). The ambitious arrangements and boundless energy of his 11-piece NPG Hornz section—augmented by New Orleans superstar Trombone Shorty—were outstanding, especially on unexpected oldies like “Hot Thing” and “Controversy”, and a gorgeous “Sometimes It Snows in April”, featuring Lianne La Havas.
Photo via Prince
The band dropped away a few times as Prince ducked behind a screen where he seemed to operate a sampler during one-man versions of “Sign O’ the Times” and “When Doves Cry”—very cool interpretations, though I noticed with bitterness that the sultry, evil opening guitar riff from “Doves Cry” was sampled, rather than played live. Same with the guitar hook from “Kiss”.
Another downside to greatest hits shows in general is the artist constantly aiming the microphone at the audience to let them sing each song’s best lines. The Essence crowd sang most of Prince’s hooks and almost the entirety of “Nothing Compares 2 U”. And yes, I am that guy complaining that Prince shouldn’t play the greatest hits, but if he does, he needs to sing them exactly as they were written.
My wife claims the graphics on the video screens were pretty crappy and the cameraman never focused on what was important; I vaguely noticed this, too, but focused instead on the sound of the amazing musicians. To that end, I heard more than a few clearly audible washes of feedback that lasted for what seemed like minutes. Prince was forced to address the soundman several times directly from stage—a total professional no-no. I can’t imagine that someone wasn’t later fired. The end of Soul Sister’s official statement on the show read, “They were the worst sound problems I’ve ever heard in anyone’s concert ever. A true professional keeps it rolling and that’s exactly what Prince did. But I sure hurt for the guy. From horrendous bass rumble to the sound engineer just plain ignoring cues, that sound was a struggle all night.”
None of this seemed to hinder anyone else’s good time. The masses were certainly appeased by the onslaught of hits, and Prince finally picked up his guitar one last time for what is now his traditional closer, “Purple Rain”.
It is strange to complain about such an energetic display of musical mastery throughout a set brimming over with some of America’s most important musical landmarks. But honestly, had I been warned that Prince would play almost no guitar the entire night, I might have saved $100 per ticket by staying home.
Let’s Go Crazy [slow version]
Take Me with U
U Got the Look
Don’t’ Stop Till You Get Enough [Michael Jackson]
Cool [The Time]
Nasty Girl [Vanity 6]
When Doves Cry
Sign O’ the Times
Little Red Corvette [slow version]
Nothing Compares 2 U
Sometimes It Snows in April [feat. Trombone Shorty and Leanne Lahavas]
What Have You Done for Me Lately [Janet Jackson]
Act of God
The Bird & Jungle Love
Glamorous Life [Sheila E]
Days of Wild
Ain’t Nobody Love Me Better [Chaka Kahn song]
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of several books. His work has been published at Columbia Journalism Review, Vice, Salon, McSweeney’s, and many other venues. Follow him on Twitter at @mpatrickwelch