Spike Lee staged a Prince tribute party last week in New York City. AEG Live is planning two big Prince tribute shows for later this month in London. Three members of New Power Generation, Prince's 1990s backup band, have been presenting a Purple tribute at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis.
Billed as This Thing Called Life, the NPG concert, which played twice over the weekend and concludes its run on Wednesday, has the right spirit but doesn't quite live up to a Princely standard.
On Saturday night, the 14-member band — starring ex-NPGers Michael Bland on drums, Sonny Thompson on bass and Tommy Barbarella on keyboards — lacked the precision and crispness of a Prince ensemble. If he'd witnessed that performance, he would have had them rehearsing for four more hours after their two 70-minute sets featuring everything from "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and "Little Red Corvette" to "Strange Relationship" and "Gold." Plus, the sound system was inadequate, especially after Prince fans have experienced Paisley Park's best-in-the-business system for years.
Nonetheless, the evening was fitting and necessary as both a musical tonic and spiritual uplift for Prince fans — including ones from Australia and Seattle — still grieving over his death seven weeks ago. To hear more than 30 Prince-penned songs delivered by an all-star Twin Cities band was a treat, especially when the Hornheads, a five-person horn section that had played with Prince, joined in the second set.
As the Hornheads came strutting down the aisle to the stage, they instantly invigorated "Willing and Able," an obscure 1991 tune with a great gospel-soul groove. Kathy Jensen's sax solo put the sexiness in "Girls and Boys." The horns made "America" into a funky, swinging celebration and the highlight of the concert. There was no question that the Hornheads added much-needed dimension, texture and urgency to the evening.
Another key player was Jamecia Bennett, the Sounds of Blackness mainstay who mostly sang fiery backup vocals in this context. But when she turned "Nothing Compares 2 U" into a duet, Julius Collins, who handled lead vocals all night, was no match for her. She's a gospel-trained roof raiser.
Collins, best known for his work in the funk-rock band Greazy Meal and in local theater productions, tried valiantly to sound like Prince, but his falsetto wasn't consistent, his moves weren't dazzling and his passion wasn't always palpable (though he got so wrapped up in a wonderful "Sometimes It Snows in April" that he was in tears by song's end). He might have been more successful trying to do the songs his way, which is what Bennett did.
Also Collins had to compete with a constant barrage of photos and videos of Prince appearing on a big screen behind the stage. Seeing the images of such an expressive, dynamic hero was distracting and disconcerting, provoking a strange sadness during a program designed to celebrate the joy of Prince's music.