Only in LA: Chappelle and Stevie Wonder's Unforgettable Prince Tribute at No Name
I was standing in a two-story room on Fairfax with no more than about 120 people at 2:15am when John Mayer started playing the unmistakable riff that kicks off Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The room became alive as everyone moved in unison: the crowd jumped up and down in a pinnacle of energy during a marathon set that had seen way, way more than its fair share of electrified moments. And when the melody started, Kurt Cobain’s drawl replaced with the breathing acrobatics of harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet (he's best-known as, well, the dude who toured with Prince on his last tour), I looked forward at the black-bandana-wrapped, sunglass-abetted head of Stevie Wonder, no more than an arm’s length in front of me, who was as excited as anyone else; he bounced with the room, vibing off of the intimacy, at one with all the people around him.
That’s when I started crying, because that’s when I realized I was at the best show I’ll ever see in my life. And it would never happen again.
Let’s start at the beginning: the text that came at 8:26pm. “Dave Chappelle playing with members of Prince’s band tonight at No Name... ”
No Name -- the sorta-private bar on Fairfax -- has become well known as both a celebrity hang and the kind of spot where anything can happen; when a tip-off like that comes from the owner, it generally means it makes sense to rally. He let me know the password, and told me it should get going around 10:30pm. I was in.
An hour after my girlfriend and I arrived, Chappelle took the stage. I didn’t take notes, because that sort of move -- like saying hi to the Oscar winners unless you actually know them -- is looked down upon there (before I put hand-to-keyboard to write this, I asked to make sure it was cool). But the gist of what Chappelle said at the top of the night is this:
Let's grieve together. Let's celebrate Prince, and celebrate the music he loved, too.
“Prince was a friend, and used to invite me to his house at Paisley Park for the best nights of my life, where it felt like anything could happen. I can’t believe he’s gone, and I can’t believe I’m not going to get those invites again. So I wanted to put on a night that felt like that. Let’s put our cell phones down, and have this to ourselves. Let’s grieve together. Let’s celebrate Prince, and celebrate the music he loved, too.”
It was the first of a few stories Chappelle would tell about his friend over the course of the night, but this one served as prelude to the kind of jam musicians dream about -- a clearly anything-goes funk-and-whatever movement that the core band onstage (which included members of Anderson .Paak’s band The Free Nationals) delivered effortlessly. And then, at some point, Chappelle was back on stage, introducing John Mayer.
Say what you will about “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” but Mayer is among the best guitar players out there. He acted as bandleader for the rest of the night, which meant histrionics, sure, but it also meant subtle bends and tasteful note choices that echoed through everything from a jokey rendition of “Hotline Bling” to the punctuations of “Purple Rain” that ended the night.
Those two songs exemplify the anything-goes atmosphere that spiraled as the night continued. Guests came fast and furious: short-haired chanteuse Goapele sang a moving rendition of "Nothing Compares 2 U," joined by other singers on harmony and backing vocals, as well as a horn section. We erupted when Nas hit the stage, breaking down "Illmatic" rhymes under smoothed-out grooves. Retro-rapper Kid (of Kid & Play) hit some awkward rhymes about "House Party" -- until Chapelle saved him with his own freestyle.
But the evening took a new curve when Stevie Wonder wandered in and was spotted by the audience. He looked like he was just going to sit and enjoy the show; soon, though, Chapelle coaxed him onstage, where it at first looked like he was just going to sing a short guest vocalist spot. Instead, he joined the band on and off for the rest of the night, singing, playing keys, and blasting harp on originals like "Higher Ground" and unexpected-cover after unexpected-cover.
In fact, it just kept going: Wonder on stage, then off, an American legend in this tiny room, there to worship another American legend, each song not on a setlist but called by someone on stage, veering from reggae hits to Sly & the Family Stone staples. The guy next to us -- a dead-ringer for a young Russell Simmons -- lost his mind early (“I can not believe this!!!” he kept yelling). Every time Wonder hit the stage, the woman behind me would yell, “Stevie play what you want!!!” (Spoiler alert: he did! Each time!!)
Perhaps most impressive was that none of us were watching with our phones or recording.
Perhaps most impressive was that none of us were watching with our phones or recording -- and as it crept past last call and into those late-night hours that are so rare for LA, even texting became verboten.
We were all in the moment together -- a true rarity in this town where we’re all guilty of social media narcissism, trying to prove that we’re at the right place, right when we are. In this case, we all actually were -- and there’s no question that Prince, himself an insular, private person, even at his most public, would have approved.
Sometime after 2am, with Chappelle, Mayer, Nas, and Wonder all on stage, one of No Name's owners came up to me: “If the cops come in at this point,” he said, “I’m just gonna point to the stage and shrug.”And by the time it all ended -- with “Purple Rain” and Chappelle telling a moving story about the last time he saw Prince alive, at the White House, with Stevie Wonder and the Obamas, under a picture of George Washington -- it all seemed like a dream. There’s no way it could have happened.
And even though the unspoken rules of No Name involve not chatting with the celebrities unless you know them, I couldn’t help myself. On the way out, I saw Chappelle.
“Dave, you don’t know me, but my name’s Jeff, and I just wanted to thank you for the best show I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Man,” he said, “it was one of the best nights of my life too.”
Dave Chappelle gave me a hug. It was 3:30am. And somehow, I was going to have to sleep. Even if a dedicated-to-Prince, harmonica-driven “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was ringing in my head -- and no one would ever hear it that way again.
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Jeff Miller has seen literally thousands of shows. Proof is at his Instagram at @jeffmillerla.