Stevie Wonder was there. Chaka Khan, too. And hot new pop sirens Tori Kelly and Jessie J.
The Official Prince Tribute Concert Thursday night at sold-out Xcel Energy Center was a celebration of the Purple One, a chance to showcase the songs that he made famous.
Instead, the overlong, 4½-hour all-star revue — with a cast of 84, unofficially — reminded us why we miss Prince so much. He was unstoppably dazzling in concert. The best in the business. One. Of. A. Kind. A man who could create magic solo or with a well-drilled band.
There was spirit, warmth and love in the arena. But seeing a parade of more than 15 acts interpreting Prince songs was either too much or too little.
Two songs from Morris Day and the Time? Too little. Six songs from André Cymone, Prince’s childhood pal? Too much.
The opening set had too little electricity. The first truly exciting moment came when Khan’s hair hit the stage, a mountain of cranberry curls that told us something good was about to happen.
Finally, a singer who could command a big stage in front of 17,000 purple-clad people ready to party. Funk arrived for the first time all night with Khan’s opening “Betcha,” a tune Prince wrote for her.
But Chaka is more than a funky princess. Backed by her own trio of backup singers, she seduced with “Sweet Thing,” Prince’s cuddliest ballad, punctuated, of course, with an orgiastic scream.
Then she covered Prince’s “I Feel for You,” which became a hit for her in 1984 and won him a Grammy for best R&B song. Just to add a little juice, she brought Wonder to season the song with his harmonica.
Chaka finally kicked the party into third gear with her fourth tune, “1999,” a guaranteed winner. She strutted around the stage with a hand fan with just a hint of Princely attitude as Wonder stood at center stage grooving along.
Despite the best efforts of Prince estate adviser L. Londell McMillan, who booked the talent, the lineup ended up lean on star power. Christina Aguilera dropped out this week because of a sore throat. John Mayer, the bill’s token guitar hero, who could have given a nod to Prince’s guitar prowess, apparently had recording obligations with his band. Anita Baker was a no-show due to injury.
That put a heavy burden on big-voiced newcomers like Tori Kelly, who sparkled on “Diamonds and Pearls,” and Jessie J, who soared on “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Philly soul man Bilal charmingly channeled Prince on “The Beautiful Ones,” which he’d done at the Revolution reunion last month at First Avenue. Still, these new stars are hardly household names.
The rest of the lineup was heavy on talented artists with Prince connections but no arena bona fides. Two songs from the always smooth, always stylish Morris Day weren’t enough for him to work up a sweat. Mint Condition, which opened the evening, knocked out a quick medley of Prince faves but hardly had a chance to build momentum.
Former Prince backup singer Marva King had a moment on “Kiss,” “The Voice” alum Judith Hill copped Prince’s playfulness on a piano rendition of “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore” and Luke James had the requisite falsetto to bring sexy back on “Do Me, Baby.”
But there were too many misfires, such as Shelby J on a too dark “Erotic City,” Portuguese fado star Ana Moura unable to rev up “Little Red Corvette” and Prince’s recorded voice with the live band on the encore of “Purple Rain.”
Moreover, the house band, led by longtime Prince keyboardist Morris Hayes, was somehow simultaneously too big (four guitarists, seven horn players, five backup singers in the first set) and too small sounding. You need oomph and action to fill an arena.
Action doesn’t mean Mayte Garcia, Prince’s first wife, dancing across the stage for two selections. At least when she performed with Prince, there was some chemistry and excitement. New York rapper Doug E. Fresh lit a bit of a spark with some beatboxing.
That left it to Wonder to save the show, waking everybody up at midnight with a funkalicious version of his own “Superstition” after he’d given a heartfelt speech about how he’s “gonna miss Prince forever.”
His soft-spoken words resonated as loudly as anything all night.