With a year’s worth of healing and planning involved -- plus some of the nicest April weather of recent memory helping out -- First Avenue nightclub’s second annual Prince memorial street party Saturday night in downtown Minneapolis went off with a lot more smiles and dancing than the tears and hugging seen on TV reports worldwide last year. The event was first put together on the fly the night of Prince’s passing with help from 89.3 the Current and city staffers.
This year, the Current put money from the Minnesota Arts & Cultural Fund toward the event, and First Ave landed permits to cordon off 7th Street outside the club. The free tickets were capped to about 2,500 fans, while a few hundred more danced outside the fences and even blocked traffic for a spell before police intervened.
The extra planning time also allowed former New Power Generation drummer Michael Bland to assemble an ace house band – with Rick Kinchen and Homer O’Dell of Mint Condition, Jonas Brothers band member Ryan Liestman and local guitar wiz Jeremy Ylvisaker (Alpha Consumer, Suburbs) – as well as a diverse batch of rotating singers, all from the Twin Cities music scene.
Thirty-some members of the Prairie Fire Lady Choir kicked off the party with the Prince medleys they had been performing around town since well before his passing. Two early highlights in the four-hour hour marathon came from two different elder statesmen, Curtiss A and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, the former of whom opened Prince’s first show at First Avenue in 1981 (when the club was still named Sam’s). Curt rocked out with a song from that era, “When You Were Mine,” while Pirner went with a full-throated version of “The Cross,” the dramatic apex of 1987’s “Sign o’ the Times,” a tune Soul Asylum recorded as a B-side in 1988.
Some young bucks made equally strong impressions as the party tore on: Proper-T of the psychedelic hip-hop/R&B ensemble ZuluZuluu turned heads with his sensual, falsetto-soaring version of “The Beautiful Ones.” Then came St. Paul-reared Rhymesayers rapper Dem Atlas with a truly crazed-sounding, punkified version of “Let’s Go Crazy,” which peaked with Ylvisaker’s hair-raising rendition of the classic guitar solo (which the Revolution didn’t even attempt at Paisley Park a day earlier).
Ironically, one of the youngest participants in the show, Kerry Alexander of the indie-rock band Bad Bad Hats, helmed one of the night’s most old-school numbers, “I Feel for You.” Adam Levy of the Honeydogs went back even farther with “Soft and Wet.” Levy also ground out a playful “Darling Nikki,” which would be a great pick for his kids-music band Bunny Clogs to play except for, well, you know. Mark Mallman similarly brought a kid-like, gleeful energy to “Raspberry Beret” and “Delirious.” Conversely, St. Paul’s hip-hop hero Maria Isa turned fiery and intense as she banged out “Sign o’ the Times” complete with conga drums. Isa also reminded the audience of the multicultural pride that Prince brought to his hometown when she yelled to the late icon, “Thank you for making Puerto Ricans feel at home in Minneapolis.”
A couple of Prince’s mid-‘80s musical cronies, Tony Christian and OneGunn of Mazarati, brought some classic funk into the mix with a trio of gems: “DMSR,” “Kiss” and “She’s Always in My Hair.” The part of the show that hewed closest to a straight-ahead Prince tribute, however, were the two times Julius Collins of Greazy Meal came out to sing. Collins also teamed with Bland and some other NPG alum for the first of last year’s high-profile tribute concerts, at the Parkway Theater last June.
Some of the raw emotion from those shows carried over onto 7th Street as Collins lovingly rendered “Sometimes It Snows in April.” At show’s end, Collins bellowed, “Here’s the benediction,” which led to a hand-waving, singalong finale of “Purple Rain” that truly felt like some kind of holy, redemptive send-off.
There was talk of First Ave’s street party continuing as an annual affair, and let's hope it becomes more than talk. Not only should it return, it should expand all the way across 7th Street to accommodate even more people. Saturday’s audience was a refreshingly diverse, mostly local crowd that seemed to appreciate having the free alternative to Paisley Park’s Celebration, which, by nature, caters more to out-of-towners. The fact that Surly tallboys were on sale for $6 at the party -- $2-$3 cheaper than they are inside the club – proved that First Ave isn’t out to make money on the event. (The Current, on the other hand, could maybe tone down its membership pitches next time). And while Saturday’s weather was unusually glorious, thanks to global warming there’s less and less chance of it snowing in April, and more and more reason to be throwing block parties this early in the season.