It took only about three hours for the Twin Cities’ definitive cultural moment of 2016 to come together, and a few more hours for it to set the tone for the months that followed.
The staff at 89.3 the Current got an early tip from a source in Chanhassen on the morning of April 21: A body had been removed from Paisley Park. While holding out hope that it wasn’t Prince, the radio station’s brass met right away to discuss the worst-case scenario. A plan to go with an all-Prince playlist on air seemed easy enough. But was it enough?
“Our events director, Jeff Hnilicka, said, ‘I think we need to do some kind of event on the street — and we need to do it today,’ ” recalled Jim McGuinn, the Current’s program director.
“The plan was put in motion around 2 p.m. By 5 p.m., we were more or less in business. It was as amazing as that sounds.”
And the impromptu street memorial that followed turned out as amazing as it looked on CNN and other TV news outlets worldwide.
Reports filed from the corner of 1st Avenue and 7th Street in downtown Minneapolis on the night of Prince’s death showed 10,000-plus people crying, hugging, dancing and singing in unison outside the First Avenue nightclub, where an all-night dance marathon followed inside. The images of those events were breathtaking.
A city that never quite knew what to make of its most famous resident when he was alive seemed to know exactly what to do upon his death: In short, let the music do the talking.
The Current’s street fest — a true team effort with First Ave’s fast-acting staff and Minneapolis’ tolerant city staffers and police — was the first in a steady stream of Twin Cities musical Prince tributes with tasteful intentions, irrepressible emotions and irresistible music. Prince’s genius was always front and center at these events, of course, but the organizers and especially the musicians involved should be commended for doing this city and their hero proud.
These were the brightest tributes in this dark year:
1. Minneapolis Street Memorial: The logistical feat of putting up a stage and sound system and blocking off the street on a few hours’ notice was spectacular enough — and very Princely, too, since he had an obvious affinity for last-minute events. But the music that followed was pulled off with equally impressive aplomb, from PaviElle’s window-rattling “I Would Die 4 U” to Chastity Brown’s heaving “When Doves Cry” and Shannon Blowtorch’s smile-sparking DJ-ing.
Some of the musicians, such as St. Paul rapper Dem Atlas, were not even alive when Prince filmed “Purple Rain” inside the adjoining building. Lizzo flew in from Los Angeles just in time to be there and had to be pushed through the crowd to get to the stage. When she got there, she made a Prince-appropriate comment that resonates even stronger at the end of 2016.
“Prince always spoke how he felt,” she told the crowd. “It’s our duty as artists to keep that spirit alive in the Twin Cities.”
2. First Ave’s All-Night Dance Parties: After the cops pulled the plug on a late-night Prince gig at First Ave back in 2007, the city and the club hammered out a deal to allow the doors to stay open after-hours should Prince come calling again. Clearly, the situation on April 21 called for similar, albeit alternate, plans.
“After the initial shock and grief of his death, the first thing we said was, ‘We’ve got to pull the Prince Permit!’ ” First Ave co-owner Dayna Frank recounted.
The club proceeded to host free late-night dance parties through the weekend, three nights in a row, with DJs including First Ave vet Roy Freedom and Transmission ringleader Jake Rudh. The room was packed every night. The energy was palpable. A lot of the crowd hung out till 7 a.m. as if hanging onto the moment.
3. NPG Tribute Concerts: “We’re musicians: There are things we can’t put into words and can only get out by playing.”
So said Michael Bland as he and his close cohorts Sonny Thompson and Tommy Barbarella — all of whom played with Prince’s New Power Generation from 1990 to ’96 — rolled up their sleeves for the first full-blown tribute concerts by any of his former bandmates, in early June.
Held at the low-key Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis, the three shows had a workmanlike music quality that left the songs to be the stars, with Greazy Meal’s Julius Collins dutifully handling lead vocals amid guest turns by Jamecia Bennett and Prince’s Hornheads brass ensemble. It wasn’t the last time “Sometimes It Snows in April” brought tears on a local stage in 2016, but it was the first and hardest.
4. The Revolution’s Tribute Concerts: The band that backed Prince through his “Purple Rain” heyday had not performed together since a fundraiser at First Ave in 2009. It took a little dust-shaking and gut-checking over a three-night stand at the same club in early September before the room started rocking.
Thanks in part to the contributions of pre-“PR” members André Cymone and Dez Dickerson — and especially to Questlove’s deep-digging DJ sets before and after the show — the concerts turned into true celebrations, like the parties Prince sparked every time he played that room. The Revolution band members’ personalities played a big role, too, especially that of Wendy Melvoin.
“Take every one of these songs and make them your own,” the guitarist fittingly advised.
5. Official Prince Tribute Concert: After a late change in venues to Xcel Energy Center and the preshow cancellation of three promised stars (John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and Anita Flack), the big kahuna of the tribute concerts in October looked to be a train wreck. Instead, it turned out to be a slow-moving, 4 ½-hour voyage with some noteworthy stops here and there.
Stevie Wonder had us wincing over forgotten words in “Raspberry Beret” but then had us looking skyward with Donnie Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Doug E. Fresh beatboxed for a long time, but Chaka Khan and Morris Day & the Time only appeared for a short time. A Pussycat Doll showed up and an ex-wife did a belly dance, but Judith Hill and Jessie J ran away with “The Cross” and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” respectively.
Kind of surprising that the tribute that had six months to prepare was the messiest of them all, rather than the one that came together in six hours. But it was no fault of the NPG-anchored house band, which leader Morris Hayes kept on track all night. The lessons learned can now be applied to the many local tributes hopefully yet to come. Like: Don’t invite too many people, and maybe don’t invite John Mayer, period.