If it wasn't for the drumset, myriad amps and microphones, slews of music stands and banks of keyboards packed onto the relatively small stage, the atmosphere at City Winery would have been no different from any other high-class restaurant in downtown Manhattan. But the venue was doubling as the Roots' rehearsal space last night as the band prepared for tonight's Prince tribute show at Carnegie Hall, where Elvis Costello, D'Angelo, Bettye LaVette, Talib Kweli, Citizen Cope and more will join the Roots (acting as the evening's house band) for a charity concert to benefit arts education programs.
Although the gig was billed as a tune-up, the all-star show went off with barely a hitch, with Costello, Booker T., the Waterboys, the Blind Boys of Alabama and other guests all taking the stage to jam on Prince's extensive catalog.
The Waterboys walked out with the Roots and got to the point immediately, opening the show with a version of "Purple Rain" that featured electric fiddle player Steve Wickham raising hell on what Prince had played as an epic guitar solo. That set the tone for an evening spent cascading through hits and obscurities, chart-toppers and side projects, with special guests shuffling on and offstage between every song. Bilal emerged to offer an extended, multi-genre take on "Sister"; the Blind Boys of Alabama intertwined four-part vocal harmonies on "The Cross"; DeVotchKa injected an Americana bluegrass feel into "Mountains"; and just about every singer who stepped up to a microphone at least made an attempt at slipping into falsetto. SNL's Fred Armisen sat in on drums during "The Cross," leaving Questlove to direct the band from the back of the stage – and to Instagram a photo of Armisen along the way.
Armisten's former SNL colleague Maya Rudolph also performed as Princess (the name of her Prince cover band with singer Gretchen Lieberum), backing up Kat Edmonson's simple, stripped down version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" and breaking it down with some semi-choreographed dance moves (and some ear-splitting screaming) while performing "Darling Nikki." They also backed up Elvis Costello – in his trademark fedora and shades – as he jumped up on stage to play "Moonbeam Levels," reading lyrics off the music stand in front of him and kicking his voice up into a falsetto by the end.
But maybe the best performance of the evening – or at least the most memorable – was Bhi Bhiman's solo acoustic take on "When Doves Cry," his vocals giving off a haunted air that left the crowd speechless. The show reached its funkiest echelon when fDeluxe (formerly the Prince-curated Family) came out to perform with the Roots, running through "High Fashion" and "Mutiny" from the Family's self-titled album, Paul Peterson's thunderous bass helming the ferocious jam. The Roots and fDeluxe brought Armisen and Princess back out for a loose take on "1999," which morphed into a singalong, with each person on stage sharing microphones back and forth.
While the 90-minute show served essentially as a dress rehearsal for tonight's main event, the loose vibe and intimate venue made it feel like a behind-the-scenes look into how all-star concerts come together. From the first chords of "Purple Rain" to the last strains of "1999," the answer was, seamlessly.