Prince was never one to give speeches. In probably his last high-profile national TV appearance, the 2015 Grammy Awards, he simply said: "Like books and black lives, albums still matter."
If you were to ever encounter him offstage, he might have said: "Kids matter. Education matters. Foodshelves matter." But instead of giving speeches about those issues, he quietly gave money to organizations that promoted youth programs, education and hunger relief. His gifts were usually anonymous.
The late Minnesota music icon's humanitarism was celebrated Sunday night at Orchestra Hall with a concert organized by Sheila E, his former drummer and fiancée, with proceeds going to Purple Philanthropy, various causes that he supported.
With a cast that included youth performers, former Prince collaborators and Sheila E's own band, this two-hour tribute was a triumph of dignity, grace, spirit, emotion, purpose, music and, of course, charity.
The 58-year-old drummer/singer jammed about 28 songs (mostly by Prince), a sincere sermon from herself and short testimonials from officials at Twin Cities organizations that Prince funded into an efficient, often exciting program that made Purple fans soon forget the unwieldy, nearly five-hour Official Prince Tribute Concert 10 days earlier in St. Paul starring Stevie Wonder and a cast of nearly 100.
To be sure, there were problems with the sound system at Orchestra Hall, not a venue noted for accommodating electric instruments and vocals effectively. At times, the sound was so muffled that listeners couldn't decipher the lyrics — unless you knew the song. But the excellent band always found the groove and kept your feet moving.
Most of the material was familiar to Prince fans, though there were a few lesser known numbers, such as "Get on the Boat," "Play in the Sunshine" and "17 Days." Sheila tossed in her own "Leader of the Band" from 2013 and the brand-new "Girl Meets Boy," a ballad written shortly after Prince's death that brought the singer to tears on Sunday. Near the end of the new song, she had to let the band keep playing while she took several extra bars to compose herself so she could sing again. It was a very moving moment.
A showy show without being slick, this concert featured creative staging and terrific arrangements. To start the performance, Sheila E marched from the back of the theater with eight young male drummers beating the rhythm of "Sign o' the Times." Later in the evening, she paraded through the crowd with her guitar, and at one point she spontaneously pulled a kid from the audience to dance onstage — and Santiago Vega, 13, of St. Paul, almost stole the show during "Girls and Boys."
Sheila trotted out her dad, percussion star Pete Escovedo, 81, to demonstrate who's the timbales master in the family. And she introduced two young musicians — Emma Taggart, 13, and her brother Jacob, 10 — to play the instrumental "Venus de Milo" from "Under the Cherry Moon" movie soundtrack on grand piano. No plug for music education was necessary.
For the sunny and joyous "Paisley Park," Sheila was joined onstage by several kids — some dancing, some singing, some jumping rope, some passing a basketball. The song celebrated Prince's vision for "Paisley Park" — an imaginary place where people could be happy and free.
Relying on her Rolodex, Sheila enlisted Mayte Garcia, Prince's first wife, and the Twinz, twin sisters Maya and Nandy McClean, who used to dance with Prince. These dancers added energy and flair to a show that was already pretty spicy. And Sheila brought out two of Prince's siblings, Tyka Nelson and Omarr Baker, for a touching moment at show's end.
Sheila and her band cast a Latin vibe to many of Prince's up-tempo tunes, with the bandleader taking some standout turns on drums and timbales. She also did a splendid job of assembling medleys, such as a knockout run through "When Doves Cry," "Housequake," "Let's Work," "U Got the Look" and "A Love Bizarre." When she did "Let's Go Crazy" late in the evening, she cleverly re-imagined it without ever singing the word "crazy"; instead the singers merely repeated "Oh, no, let's go" over and over.
Knowing her vocal limitations, Sheila prudently featured three other female vocalists of different flavors throughout the program — Lynn Mabry of Brides of Funkenstein and "20 Feet From Stardom" fame, Ashling Cole from Larry Graham's band and Elisa Dease, who used to sing with Prince's NPG.
At this latest Purple salute, there were two takeaways: 1) Sheila E is a special, dynamic entertainer who not only can conceive a top-notch show but deliver it, and 2) she and Prince were clearly soul mates — in spirit, music and heart. Maybe that's why this tribute concert felt like the kind of home-going that Prince deserved.