While Paisley Park was throwing its first post-Prince “Paisley After Dark” dance party Friday night ($60 admission), First Avenue was offering the kind of special live performances that Prince was known for at Paisley. And for only $25.
The evening was billed as a Jimi Hendrix Tribute featuring guitarist/singer Jesse Johnson along with drummer Michael Bland and bassist Sonny Thompson, both former members of Prince's NPG. It turned out to be a 2 ½-hour, wild and loose marathon of organic, often improvised music making with exciting chemistry, stellar musicianship and many magical moments.
The Los Angeles-based Johnson, best known as the guitarist for the Time, had never before showcased the range and depth of his guitar skills in Minneapolis, whether at a Time (or Original 7ven) gig, his show last fall in D’Angelo’s band or his handful of solo performances in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Whether playing Hendrix tunes, blues, Time pieces, Prince numbers or material from his solo catalog, Johnson proved to be a guitar monster on Friday.
The trio had limited rehearsal but that didn’t matter because they clearly connected as players. The smiles on the faces of Bland and Thompson when Johnson soloed told you that they were getting off on playing with him.
And there were similar smiles on the face of the club-goers, even though there were maybe only 500 of them.
Johnson proved he could play heavy rock-blues with fast runs just like Hendrix. And he could play the blues in any tempo with authority. On one jam late in the encore, he was clearly in a zone, seemingly channeling Hendrix and Buddy Guy at the same time.
After the trio played an hour-long set, Johnson promised one more number. Actually the group carried on for 90 minutes and several tunes, most completely improvised.
At one point during the encore, Johnson shifted from a swing blues into his 1985 single “I Want My Girl,” then segued into his poppy, syncopated 1987 single “Black in America” (still relevant today, of course) and moved into some Time tunes, starting with “The Bird” as a slowed down guitar funk, followed by “Cool” and “777-9311,” and then capped it with his big 1985 R&B hit “Can You Help Me.”
Hearing these songs delivered by their writer with just guitar riffs and a minimal rhythm section suggested a time when the songs themselves might have been written and how musicians jam on tunes. It was intimate, personal and illuminating.
In the main set, there were intimate, personal interpretations of Prince material. Johnson’s debut single, “Be Your Man,” led into the Purple One’s “Controversy,” rendered as sort of a Sly Stone-like jazz-soul-rock jam. Then “Party Up” came next, done as minimalist bad-ass funk.
Many observers of the Minnesota music scene thought Johnson and Prince were rivals when it came to guitar. On Friday, Johnson made it clear that, unlike his old friend, he doesn’t assimilate any obvious Carlos Santana influences; Jesse is more a heavy rock guy with blues roots.
Johnson also made it clear how he landed in Minneapolis and in Prince’s Royal Court. In his native Illinois in 1981, Johnson met Minneapolis R&B singer Sue Ann Carwell, who suggested he come to the Twin Cities. (By the way, she sang “Purple Rain” with Johnson’s trio on Friday, though there was an awkward pause between her exit and Johnson performing his version of the climactic guitar solo.) She was in a band called Enterprise with Morris Day on drums. Johnson joined the group, saw Prince perform on the Dirty Mind Tour and then met him a few days later at an Enterprise band rehearsal.
Johnson told Prince that after hearing him sing, he expected Prince to talk in a real high voice (he imitated what he thought Prince should sound like). “He fell on the floor,” the guitarist said. That kind of fun-loving sparring became the nature of their relationship, Johnson said.
Oh, he added, “That was the last time I saw him in jeans.”
For the record, Johnson was honest why Prince hired him to be the guitarist in the Time.
Johnson said to Prince: “’Do you want to hear me play? He said, ‘No. I like the way you look.’”
And Prince would have liked -- really liked -- the way Johnson played on Friday at First Avenue.