If Thursday night's all-star tribute to Prince – including appearances by D'Angelo, Elvis Costello, the Blind Boys of Alabama and ex-SNL star Maya Rudolph – had a theme, it was that the Minneapolis pop genius' best work could withstand just about any kind of treatment and stand up tall. The latest of Carnegie Hall's annual music-education benefits for underprivileged youth – this one, a sellout, raised over $100,000 – featured a few heavy hitters but also a lot of curveballs, befitting an artist who has played hard to get as often as he has played the accessible hit-maker.
At least some of those curves had to have come from Questlove, the Roots' drummer and musical director for the show. The Roots provided unwavering support for most of the acts, accompanied on guitar by Wendy Melvoin of the Revolution, the band that backed Prince on Purple Rain. In many cases the performers took chances on well-known songs. Or not-so-well-known, as was the case with Costello, who near the end sang an unreleased Prince song called "Moonbeam Levels" (known to many bootleg collectors as "A Better Place to Die"). Which of these two ultra-music-geeks onstage decided on that one – Costello, the man who once wrote a listener's guide to a 24-hour cycle, or Questlove, with his complete collection of Soul Train episodes? Either way, the song scored big, as did much of the night.
There were low spots – sometimes a tribute show is just a tribute show, especially when it involves Citizen Cope, who did a desultory busker's version of "Pop Life" with Alice Smith. Bhi Bhiman's "When Doves Cry" was similarly monochromatic – gutsy, if boring. It was a nice idea to have a kids' choir do "Raspberry Beret," accompanying Booker T. Jones on organ, but it was too scattered to catch heat. Devotchka's "Mountains" (a minor hit from 1986's Parade, and Prince at his psychedelic-poppiest) had a faultless arrangement – the violin, tuba and trumpet were apt touches – but Nick Urata's strained vocals were a distraction.
Most of the time, though, the show cooked. The Waterboys' Mike Scott and Steve Wickham opened with "Purple Rain," which seemed strange given that song's showstopper status, but Scott sang it straight and true, and violinist Wickham took the iconic solo, a rousing switch-up that prompted the first of the evening's many standing ovations.
Melvoin was hardly the only old Prince hand onstage at Carnegie. Eric Leeds, the saxophonist from Prince's Sign 'o' the Times and Lovesexy bands, soloed on "Ten" (by Madhouse, his old Prince-sponsored jazz-funk unit), and sat in for much of the rest. St. Paul Peterson and Susannah Melvoin of the Family, a mid-Eighties Prince act, joined for "High Fashion/Mutiny," off 1985's The Family – another cult favorite that the knowledgeable crowd ate up. Susannah (Wendy's twin sister, who dated Prince for many years) strutted around the stage in a white pantsuit, looking like she was having the time of her life.
Some of the song-artist pairings were obvious: Of course the Blind Boys of Alabama were going to do "The Cross," from Sign 'o' the Times. (And of course Fred Armisen was going to sit in on drums for that one – he used to play indie rock, and "The Cross" is Prince's most Velvet Underground-like song.) Of course D'Angelo would close the show with the celebratory "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" (also from Sign), because he's a great showman and it's a great show song.
And of course Talib Kweli, a politically minded rapper, would do "Annie Christian" (from 1981's Controversy), because it's near-spoken-word about social issues. He got good mileage from extending the bit about "She killed John Lennon" by throwing in other, more recent senseless gun-violence victims ("She shot Gabrielle Giffords"), building to a shout: "Everybody say gun control!"
But much of the music took risks. Bettye Lavette did "Kiss" as a sly, skeletal blues. Sandra Bernhard made "Little Red Corvette" into a semi-monologue, throwing off the crowd's attempts to sing along by following her own rhythms: in true Bernhard style, you didn't know whether it was supposed to be funny or not, but all of it worked, and it brought down the house. (She dedicated it to many Prince women: Sheila E, Vanity, Apollonia, and of course Wendy, who took a small bow, and Lisa Coleman.) Kat Edmondson, a cabaret-jazz singer from Austin, rendered "The Beautiful Ones" as a very slow piano ballad, and nailed it – the last verse was pin-drop quiet, and wrenching.
R&B crooner Bilal, though, went the furthest out, on what may still be the furthest-out song Prince has written: "Sister," a 93-second ode to brotherly-sisterly love from 1980's Dirty Mind. Bilal ran through the song through an iPod playlist's worth of styles, from dramatic art-rock to slow blues and then, finally, back to the frenetic original new wave arrangement. It was a tour de force that many in the audience were talking about after the lights went up.
There was a lot of comedy on stage at Carnegie, but it wasn't simple relief. Chris Rock did the spoken outro from "If I Was Your Girlfriend" as a comic monologue, embellishing it: "Would you laugh and laugh?" – that's from the original song. "Like you heard some shit from Chris Rock?" – that wasn't. And when PrinceSS – Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum's Prince tribute act – came out for "Darling Nikki," dressed a la the man himself (the heavily pregnant Rudolph in trench coat and kerchief, Gretchen looking like Jill Jones in the "1999" video), they even climaxed it with the backward vocals that end side one of Purple Rain. When they finished, Wendy whispered something to them. "Good job" would have been appropriate – for them, and for most of the night.