Prince had an eye for talent and an ability to teach.
Eleven months after his death, three of his proteges – Liv Warfield, Judith Hill and Shelby J – teamed up at the Dakota Jazz Club Saturday night to demonstrate what they learned.
“Now is the time to spread your wings and fly,” Hill crooned in “Beautiful Life.”
And soar they did. It was energetic, funky, emotional, soulful, heartfelt, uplifting, spontaneous, fun and deeply musical. In a word, it was terrific. And they did it twice – two sold-out shows that each stretched to nearly two hours.
"Prince taught us well," Shelby J declared before the encore of the first show. Indeed.
The sets were similar save for the encores and some of Warfield’s numbers.
Let’s start with Shelby J because she kicked off both sets and became the night’s big discovery.
Known as a backup singer for Prince who might get a solo number in his show, Shelby J, who is from North Carolina, is set to release her overdue debut album in April. She previewed the disc with four numbers to start the evening.
An earthy vocalist and enthusiastic personality, she showed versatility but stood out on the opening cover, a timely treatment of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes, We Can Can” (which was a 1973 hit for the Pointer Sisters), and her closing piece, the super-funky “Superpower,” which sounded like a classic Prince jam distinguished by Shelby’s raw, gritty voice.
Warfield was up next. She’s no stranger to the Dakota; the Portland-based singer headlined for a memorable night there in 2014.
In Saturday’s first performance, Warfield used her two backup singers – Saeeda Wright and Ashley Merriweather – to start with a mesmerizing a cappella treatment of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to set up Warfield’s own often jazzy “Freedom,” from her 2014 album “The Unexpected,” executive-produced by Prince.Then she threw down “Little Things,” a foot-stomping tribal rock-funk.
Enter Hill, whose star shone brightly on NBC’s “The Voice” before she went on to sing backup for Michael Jackson and record and work with Prince on her 2015 debut album, “Back in Time.” With her four quick songs on Saturday, the 32-year-old Californian served notice that she has blossomed into a true artiste.
What a palette -- from a solo piano rendition of the standard “My Funny Valentine” to a gospel-blues-soul piano piece “Cry, Cry, Cry,” on which she got all Etta James. She got philosophical on the ballad “Beautiful Life” and political on “As Trains Go By,” a prolonged Prince-like funk that included the refrain from Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us.”
All three of the Prince proteges joined in for a version of the Staple Singers’ 1975 hit “Let’s Do It Again.” Then it was time for Warfield, playing with her band and NPG sax man Keith Anderson, who supported all three singers.
Warfield tore it up on “Crash,” which featured some "Whole Lotta Love" guitar riffs by Ryan Waters, and “Blackbird,” which featured some cool saxophone scatting by Warfield and Merriweather. Then Warfield, who is in her mid-30s, went old-school on Buddy Miles’ 1970 classic “Them Changes,” and she did it justice with a hard-driving rock-funk style that evoked Tina Turner.
The encores differed with each show, though all three singers were involved. The first one was Prince’s “Musicology,” a 20-minute music history lesson; for the second show, it was a Sly Stone medley of “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf)” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” a staple from Prince shows.
Feeling the momentum and mood of the occasion, the trio returned for a second encore during the late show, a Purple jam of James Brown’s “Get On Up” and Prince’s “Party Up” and “DMSR,” which ended with the three vocalists dancing off singing “we love you Prince” to the chorus.
During the second performance, the three singers got a bit more emotional. Warfield teared up during a duet version of Prince’s “Paisley Park” with Merriweather. Warfield, who organized this one-off gig with her band, also gave a little speech in the second show.
“A lot of people ask me: How do I feel? Numb sometimes. Afraid sometimes.” She said she no longer has that special friend to call when she's trying to make a decision.
The answer is you carry on. Because that is what Prince would have taught and told them. You make music. And you make it funky.