The little Prince paid tribute to Big Chick.
Monday night at Rupert's Nightclub in Golden Valley, the 5-foot-3 Minneapolis rock star paid tribute in song - and to the tune of more than $50,000 - to his former 6-foot-6 bodyguard, Charles (Big Chick) Huntsberry, who died last month of heart failure at age 49, leaving a family of seven without the benefits of life insurance.
There were some emotional, inspired moments during the 90-minute, $100-a-ticket benefit for Huntsberry's family. Prince offered "Purple Rain," Huntsberry's favorite among his ex-boss' songs, to Linda Huntsberry, who was sitting with her six children next to Prince's mother. It was an especially stirring performance of one of his traditional bravura concert numbers.
Before he even sang a note Monday, Prince announced that he was dedicating the concert to Huntsberry, and told the 600 clubgoers that the burly bodyguard-turned-evangelist was "looking down, smiling." Big Chick might have been smiling but he might not have recognized what he heard, even though the titles were so familiar that this could have been categorized as a greatest-hits show.
Prince has once again revamped his band, adding local drummer Michael Bland of Dr. Mambo's Combo, and San Francisco keyboardist Rosie Gaines and dropping his two-man horn section. Bland brought a fatter bottom sound, distinctly different from the crisp funk of his predecessor, Sheila E., and the spare, electronic feel of Bobby Z, Prince's original drummer.
Moreover, Prince favored more of a rock than a funk feel Monday, in what was advertised as a preview of his forthcoming 56-concert European tour. It was supposedly the only performance of this set in the United States. Prince plans to perform in this country next fall, but with new material from his movie "Graffiti Bridge," set for an August release.
Monday's concert was opened by Flash, a new Twin Cities group under Prince's guidance. Margaret Cox is the featured singer, accompanied by three members of Dr. Mambo's Combo (including Bland) and two musicians from the Steeles' backup band. These veterans of the local bar scene offered a quick, five-song set of Southern-fried, gospel-flavored R&B with a hard-rock edge. The sound was a bit dated, evoking the mid-'70s, and Cox was at times overwrought, especially on an otherwise compelling treatment of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire." Flash will accompany Prince on his European tour.
If the Rupert's concert was a true indication, European audiences will see a good - but not great - Prince show. It is being billed as "The Nude Tour," meaning a stripped down rock 'n' roll show. On Rupert's small stage, Prince was able to use very little in terms of sets and scenery. His new dancers - Kirk Cameron, Damon Dixon and Tony Mosley, all of whom danced in the movie "Purple Rain" - had little room in which to move; when they performed, their steps were decidedly of the old school, not nearly as fresh as Prince's music, his last dancer, Cat Glover, or the state-of-the-art steps by the dancers accompanying 1989 superstar Bobby Brown.
Prince's moves were spontaneous, in contrast to the meticulously choreographed albeit thrilling choreography featured on his last concert trek, the elaborate Lovesexy Tour.
A special touch at Rupert's was a baby grand piano situated in the crowd in the corner of the club, some 15 steps away from the stage. Prince's excursions on that piano provided some of the best rewards of the night. He turned "Nothing Compares 2 U," which he wrote for the Family in '85, into a rich, soulful, almost orchestral number compared to the stark, meditative version by Sinead O'Connor, which went to No. 1 this spring. Prince played elegant piano and sang with a palpable ache in his voice, suggesting an affinity for country music for the first time in his career.
The eclectic and exciting "Question of You," the lone new number in Prince's program, started slowly as a piano ballad but seduced listeners when he leaped atop the piano and serenaded with some gorgeous, slow, moody, almost Spanish guitar work. He then returned to the stage and, as his band found a late-night blues groove, he did some very theatrical, playful mime-inspired dancing that often evoked Charlie Chaplin. He grabbed the microphone, signaled the band into a blues vamp and declared that all the men call him Prince, the women call him "Electric Man." Finally, he cued the band for a James Brown-style coda.
Prince has favored Brown-like jams since his breakthrough Purple Rain Tour in 1984. When he forayed into those kinds of funk grooves Monday, it wasn't as crisp and captivating as in the past. A saxophone and trumpet, which had been part of his concert sound for the last half of the 1980s, were missed at times, most notably on "Baby, I'm a Star," the show-stopping finale from the "Purple Rain" film.
Monday's repertoire was heavy on selections associated with the movies "Purple Rain" and last year's "Batman," which yielded some of Prince's weaker material, including the dud of a finale, "Partyman." The program might have been more satisfying with a sprinkling of earlier material from, say the "Dirty Mind" and "Controversy" albums, that would have fit with back-to-the-basics rock sound.
Rap was more evident in Prince's music Monday than ever before. He was particularly playful during "Alphabet Street," singing the chorus, stopping and then stroking his bearded chin. He joked that he used to like blondes but now he prefers brunettes. Then he moved into an R&B vamp and finally into a rap, with keyboardist Gaines doing it gospel style and then Prince offering a buoyant, pop-flavored rap before slipping into a swampy funk guitar mode.
Prince has used the occasional Twin Cities club concert to preview his major concert tours since 1981. During those previews he has performed looser than he does at arena concerts here or elsewhere. That was true again Monday night. He was talkative and smiled freely. He told a touching story about how Huntsberry would mime guitar whenever the star played the solo to "Purple Rain."
(In an interview Monday, Alan Leeds, who was Prince's tour manager from '83 to '89, said that when Huntsberry first heard "Purple Rain" he predicted it would make Prince, then a cult hero, famous. "Chick kept telling me that Willie Nelson would cover (record) it," said Leeds. "That, to him, was a big achievement, that the song would have that broad of an appeal.")
Prince showed his sense of humor during "Baby, I'm a Star," declaring that he felt pretty strong. "I think I can beat Mike," he boasted, pausing after making an athletic gesture. "Michael Jackson," shouted Prince's band members, though the crowd had assumed the star was referring to boxer Mike Tyson.
On this night, Prince's performance could not have bested either Tyson or Jackson, heavyweights in their respective fields. But, perhaps, if he had really been face to face with either of them, somehow Big Chick might have lent a hand to make sure the little Prince still came out a champ.