One of Prince’s close musical confidantes of the past decade, Shelby J sat backstage after her sound check at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday night and took a deep breath.
“I cried earlier today, but now that we’re here, I’m excited,” the former member of Prince’s New Power Generation said. “I needed this.”
Everyone who converged on the St. Paul hockey arena for the long-awaited, hastily produced tribute concert to Minneapolis’ world-renowned rock legend said they needed it.
In the end, the four-plus-hour concert’s 18,000 attendees did not seem to care much about how the event changed dates from August and then switched venues from U.S. Bank Stadium. They didn’t even sound that disappointed that three of the biggest stars fell off the lineup.
John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and Anita Baker all dropped off the bill at the last minute — or maybe never were fully confirmed. The latter two cancellations were announced in fine print on poster boards near the entrances.
The primary concern for fans was the chance to finally honor the musician who deeply affected their lives and — for the many who came from other states and countries — put Minnesota on the map.
“It’s been really hard, and there hasn’t been an opportunity like this for a lot of us who’ve felt empty,” said Eudora Tucker of New York City.
“Thank you, Minnesota, for providing us with this sense of closure,” said Darlene Blander, also from New York, who was so distraught when she heard the news of Prince’s death on April 21 she went home early from her job as a data analyst.
Decked out in purple eye-shadow and lipstick, Blander added, “This feels good. It seems like a good way to honor him, especially with Stevie and Morris on the lineup.”
That would be Motown legend Stevie Wonder and the Time’s singer and “Purple Rain” co-star Morris Day, two of the obvious highlights. The tribute lineup also included Chaka Khan, Doug E. Fresh, Tori Kelly and late-addition pop star Jessie J alongside many of Prince’s own bandmates in NPG and 3rdEyeGirl.
Conspicuously missing, however, were his “Purple Rain”-era group the Revolution, who did their own tribute shows at First Avenue last month but couldn’t reconvene for Thursday’s big gig, and Sheila E., who is heading up a tribute at Orchestra Hall on Oct. 23. Revolution drummer Bobby Z did show up, and he took the stage to share a few memories with the X crowd.
“It would’ve been nice to have the whole Prince musical family here,” said Reji Taylor, who came from Manassas, Va. “But we should give his real family the credit they deserve for putting this on.
“This is the release that we all needed,” Taylor continued. “People who aren’t Prince fans don’t understand how much he meant to those of us who were.”
Prince’s siblings and family members spearheaded the event with help from music industry professionals. They were expected to share a six-figure dollar sum off the show, tickets for which were priced $19.99-$225 and sold out in a half-hour. His sister Tyka Nelson appeared outside the arena with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman to accept the city’s Prince Day proclamation and later took the stage to tell fans, “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”
Fans had to wait outside during a late sound check, but all frustrations ended when the show opened with a moving video montage that included memories of Prince’s music and generosity from family members, charity leaders and even President Obama. “Thank you, Prince, for all your works,” Obama said. “You’ll be in our hearts forever.”
Then came the party. St. Paul-bred R&B group Mint Condition, kindred local spirits with Prince, opened the concert with grinding versions of “D.M.S.R.” and “When Doves Cry.” Next came his early cohorts the Time, who had the crowd doing the hand gestures to “The Bird” like it was 1983 at First Avenue again.
Probably the biggest treat for old-school fans came two hours later, when a harmonica-shredding Wonder joined Chaka Khan for “I Feel for You” and “1999.”
Minnesotans have had many opportunities to attend Prince memorial events in recent months, but many felt Thursday’s larger-scale concert suited his style.
“It’s the kind of show he would’ve liked,” said Sarah Sullivan of Minneapolis, whose mom wouldn’t let her stay out overnight in 1984 to get tickets for Prince’s Purple Rain Tour concerts at Xcel Center’s predecessor, the St. Paul Civic Center (she got tickets anyway). Sarah attended Thursday’s concert with her mom, Patty Sullivan.
“Prince’s family didn’t have to do this for us; they don’t owe us anything,” Patty Sullivan said, “so we should thank them for this.”