Remembering Prince With 6 Essential Live Performances
Prince is dead.
I never thought those would be three words that would go together. The Purple One was untouchable, otherworldly, and impenetrable. He was one of the greatest performers of all time, and his shows were legendary. Prince could show up to a club at 11, strap on a guitar at 1 AM, and wrap at dawn. He could play three shows a night, or do a run of 21 arena shows, each one tirelessly different than the next. His most recent tour was him, alone, with a piano and microphone, playing through classics, covers, and requests with a gliding edge that made 20-year-old songs new again. His sudden passing still feels impossible.
Prince worked tirelessly to control his aura. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the musician allowed very few unsanctioned videos online, concerned with how his image could be perpetuated. But we searched the corners of the internet to find demonstrations of what a powerhouse he was, as an instrumentalist, a singer, and a force of nature. Consider this a primer -- in reverse-chronological order:
Prince was a last-minute addition to Coachella 2008 (or, as he pronounced it, CoAAAchella), announced just days before the show, following rumors that Radiohead was set to appear at the desert festival. So when his band started playing "Creep" -- during a revelatory, mostly hit-driven set -- everyone on the field lost their minds simultaneously. When it became clear that he was going to play the entire song with horns punctuating the song's trademark growling guitars, you could hear a generation rediscovering a hero. Videos were pulled almost as soon as they appeared, until Radiohead themselves got involved -- and the copywriter claims were dismissed. Thank Thom Yorke next time you see him.
Super Bowl Halftime Show, 2/4/07
Watch this short NFL Films video for proof that Prince's halftime show was the best one we'll ever see. Not only did he blaze through Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" as well as the Foo Fighters "Best Of You" intermingled in a medley of his own hits (rumor is that Dave Grohl had no idea until he saw it unfold live) -- he did it in a torrential rain storm, with bravado and charisma that seems absolutely effortless. There's a marching band on the field and they seem as flabbergasted -- and superfluous -- as possible.
Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony, 3/15/04
To non-musicians, Prince was many things: a sexy motherfucker, a man who knew how to go crazy, and a man who made it sound like doves were crying. But musicians knew him as the most skilled guitarist on the planet (if you don't believe us, believe Eric Clapton, who -- when asked what it felt like to be the best guitarist in the world -- said, "ask Prince.") When Prince rips into his solo on George Harrison's Beatles classic, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony (it happens at 3:07, in case you want to fast forward), it's basically a master-class in the instrument, starting with a classic bend-and-release and then veering into harmonic slides, quick-vibrato single notes, and even a chord reach-around that leaves Tom Petty clearly in-awe. Also in-awe? Harrison's son Dahni, who at 4:44 has a look on his face that screams "holy shit, I can't believe this guy is from this planet."
MTV Video Music Awards, 9/5/91
Look, I was 12 in 1991, and I remember watching this unbelievably orgiastic performance, which opens with a half-nude lady giving a doggy-style lapdance, continues with Prince getting homoerotically piled on (before pouncing up and into the splits!) and climaxes with a song THAT LITERALLY HAS AN ORGASM NOISE AS PERCUSSION. As a boy, I felt like something totally wrong but totally right was going on with me (also, this is probably the first time I ever heard the term "one night stand," so there's that.) Watching the simulated-or-is-it-group-sex and Prince wearing assless pants as an adult now -- especially with that "TV-PG" up in the corner -- makes me feel like I should be a bit less judgy of anything sexually explicit that my friends' kids are watching, because honestly this is worse (and better) than, like, anything else on TV.
The Capitol Theater, 1/30/82
Sadly, thanks to all that copyright stuff, there just aren't a ton of Prince shows online, but this potato-looking early concert shows a man who seemingly knew exactly what he'd become. His signature sounds are there (including the impossibly funky Sheila E's drumming), and his performance is so self-assured it's almost as if he's anointing himself king (....er, Prince.) If you don't have an hour to spare, skip straight to "Controversy," which was a staple right up to his death (in fact, he played it just last week in Atlanta): in it, Prince shimmers, shimmies, and plays with unmistakeable, already-iconic energy.
Bonus: Purple Rain (1984)
We're counting (and re-watching!) Prince's feature film among the live performances because that's basically what it is, minus the part where anyone could attended it. Purple Rain was basically Prince's introduction to the mainstream world, and watching it now is revelatory: the A Star Is Born formula has also been replicated in everything from Britney Spears' Crossroads to Rock of Ages, but never has it felt like the wont for celebrity has been embodied by a man so absolutely hungry. The movie certainly has its share of cheese, but it's overpowered by all of the music scenes, especially when Prince blasts into the now-classic title song: it's basically like you can watch someone transform from a man to a music god before your eyes. Rentthis movieimmediately.
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Jeff Miller was lucky enough to see Prince six times, including that Coachella show. Each one was one of the best shows he's ever seen. Follow him @jeffmillerla.