Prince: Remembering the Rock Star, Funk Lord, Provocateur, Genius
On Thursday, April 14th, at about six in the evening, a black SUV pulled up to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. It was an hour before showtime, but Prince didn’t need much preparation – this was the eighth stop on his Piano and a Microphone Tour, a series of unusual shows, mostly two a night, that saw one of the world’s greatest showmen scaling down his performance for an intimate keyboard recital. “He only soundchecked for a few minutes,” Lucy Freas, the promoter who’d set up this concert, tells Rolling Stone. As had been his habit for more than a decade – whether playing a 4,600-seat theater by himself or a 20,000-capacity arena with a full band – the shows were pop-ups, arranged on short notice. Freas had gotten an e-mail with the subject line “Prince” a few days before. Prince’s team was looking for an independent promoter – was she interested? She was on the phone 10 minutes later.
These Atlanta shows had originally been scheduled for April 7th, with tickets on sale nine days before (far more time than the 32 hours the Sony Centre in Toronto had to sell tickets for a show in March). The Fox Theatre sold out instantly, and Freas was already working on more dates in Philly, St. Louis and Nashville, as well as a Miami arena concert. But illness forced Prince to postpone Atlanta for a week, and when he arrived that night, he still wasn’t feeling well. “Don’t worry,” his tour coordinator told Freas. “Nobody will know. He’ll perform, and he’ll give it his all.”
When he came onstage for the first show, he seemed at ease, greeting fans in the front before he sat down at the piano and launched into a version of “Little Red Corvette,” dropping in bits of “Dirty Mind” and the Peanuts theme. It was a mesmerizing hour and 20 minutes. Piano was Prince’s first instrument – his father, John Nelson, had tried to make his way as a jazz pianist – so the night was a homecoming, a return to the source of all of Prince’s music. (“[My father] didn’t teach me that,” he joked at one point during a playful elaboration on “Chopsticks.” “I taught myself.”) Some moments it felt as if the songs were taking shape for the first time, brief hesitations giving way to new ideas. Others – particularly in the second show, where he played a driving version of “Black Sweat,” from 2006’s 3121 – felt completely realized, his voice and the rhythms ground out by his left hand filling all the space.
As with so many visionary artists, there was a period in Prince’s career – almost all of the 1980s – when he seemed able to look around corners, when his music seemed to live in the future, and then assemble that future around us. Perhaps because of that, there were moments at the Fox Theatre that feel now like premonitions. At the 7:00 show, he covered “A Case of You,” by Joni Mitchell, long one of his favorite artists. The year before, Mitchell had been found alone and unconscious at her Los Angeles home, having suffered a brain aneurysm. (She has since made a partial recovery.) He also played David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a tribute to an artist who had died just three months earlier, and who had been – as Prince himself always was – restless and deliberate with his art and image, and who challenged the norms of gender and genre. The song is about the wish to transcend – to snatch a moment of glory that can transform the impermanent into the eternal – and Prince embodied the lyric, starting each line with a vocal stab that then floated upward.
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