I would like to tell you now about the final concert of Prince Rogers Nelson.
On Apr. 14, one week ago yesterday, the Fox Theatre in Atlanta presented The Artist, solo, just one man with his piano and a microphone, gracing the storied theater with separate 7 and 10 p.m. sets in a grand one-night stand.
We took our seats half an hour before the stated set time, soaking in the (yes, purple) fog that poured onto the stage from both sides continuously; the few relatively understated candles on platforms flanking the stage; the classical music that vaguely accompanied the screensaver-like visuals projecting onto a massive onstage screen; and Prince’s grand piano facing stage right, waiting for him as a seasoned show horse awaits her lifelong rider. As showtime drew nearer, every minute became an hour.
The house lights went down around 8:15, and a large illustrated portrait of Prince emerged on the screen as droning string swells bathed the room in heightened anticipation. There was a sense of pandemonium among the crowd. This was to be no VH1 “Storytellers” reserved cocktail vibe. The strings continued to grow in tension as the single portrait of Prince was replaced by a collage of dozens of portraits of The Artist representing every era of his 40-year, 38-album career.
And, finally: a golden square of light, backlit at the bottom left of the screen, Prince standing behind and motionless in silhouette, the shriek of the crowd now rumbling the building like jets, as if Holyfield had just won the fight.
This hallowed corner of the screen lifted like a secret curtain and Prince was revealed in full throwback regalia, strutting out as golden fog billowed and swirled around him, bell-bottoms and Afro ablaze with the glory of his mythos, honest-to-god pimp cane in hand. The Artist circled the stage several times, playfully menacing, taking the crowd to a frothing boil by his music-less presence alone before sitting at the piano, then hitting the first 3–4 seconds of the first verse of “Little Red Corvette” as a tease before standing up to peacock around the stage just a little more. The crowd was now at peak freakout, old black ladies and young white dudes alike basically rolling in the aisles: The master had now cracked his knuckles.
The set proper opened with a mashup of “Little Red Corvette” and the title track from my favorite Prince album, Dirty Mind, an impeccable pairing that segued with the aplomb of real genius into “Linus and Lucy” from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Following this, Prince used his piano to tell us the story of his musical evolution from childhood, beginning with “Chopsticks” (which, against all odds, he turned into a downright jam… this was no Manfred Mann bullshit) and snaking into choice greasy funk and rock and roll styles, discussing his father’s influence along the way.
Every so often he would perform some showy right-hand acrobatics on the piano while crossing his legs and primping his hair with his left hand, but only long enough to kind of pinch the crowd’s bum, never obnoxious. Toward the middle of the set he brought things down for a moment to play a somber rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” shedding the concept of himself as a superhuman entity as he shed real tears, leaving the stage abruptly at the end of the song and returning moments later to say, as much to himself as to us, “I had forgotten how emotional some of these songs can be… [deep breath] Stay wit it, Prince.”
I felt like a soldier in a loving militia dedicated to spreading the salvational virtues of real rock and roll power.
Prince did much more than stay with it. For the remainder of the set, The Artist took us on a one-man journey both rocking and heart-rending through the greatest highlights of his career, the crowd clapping, dancing, and singing along with him all the while. “Nothing Compares 2 U” took on a stately power, much closer to the version he wrote for Sinead O’Connor than the funkier take he usually performs with his full band. “I Would Die 4 U” felt like the real truth; as I stood and sang along I felt like a soldier in a loving militia dedicated to spreading the salvational virtues of real rock and roll power, Prince our gracious Conductor-in-Chief. And of course there were several pure-sex jams, like “Controversy.”
And later, the fatal blow to my composure: a reverent take on Bowie’s “Heroes.”
I’ve spoken of it this way to many people before yesterday, but now it does feel eerie: This concert had the sense of a memorial about it. At the Fox that night, Prince seemed to be memorializing not only his own incomparable career, but the very era of human pop-cultural history in which an artist such as himself—an eccentric, chance-taking, visionary auteur, tirelessly transcending our notion of “entertainment” as frivolity—may have the opportunity to be nurtured and grown from seed over the course of a decade with the support of the mainstream music industry establishment. (Many people don’t seem to realize that Purple Rain, for example, was his SIXTH album.)
This isn’t to say that just anyone with a guitar and a dream could compete with the drive, focus and talent of Prince. He always seemed to glance, eyebrow up, suspiciously and curiously at music-dom outside of his velvet world (while also often embracing it… he made a freaking Foo Fighters song sound like Hendrix at the Super Bowl in 2007). However, I do believe that if Prince, 20-some years old, emerged from Julliard in 2016 with the same amount of talent and drive that he had in the mid-’70s (i.e. an already-peerless quantity), he would stand little chance of being better-regarded and known and supported by mainstream music outlets (which he would of course eventually reject, but still) than someone like Sean Nicholas Savage or Grimes or Blood Orange or Javier Morales. I dunno, maybe Tame Impala guy will be able to do surprise Fox Theatre shows in 30 years. All I know is that one week ago at the Fox, it felt like Prince was freehand-drawing the purple in the sky at the twilight of something special.
As is true for millions of humans spanning every continent on this earth right now, a part of my spirit feels gone, but I plan to fill that hole with as much music as possible. I can think of no better way to pay tribute to such a prolific and dedicated true magician of our times than for us all to work hard at the things we love; otherwise, the privilege of our freedom to do so runs an awful risk of being taken for granted.
And yes, alone at a piano—gracious, friendly, and appreciative to his crowd—the final performance of The Artist at the late show on Apr. 14, 2016, was, indeed, “Purple Rain.”
Rock in peace, Maestro.
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