Energy Transfer: Piano & A Microphone Gala
Two years ago tonight, I attended my very last Prince concert. It was also the only concert I had attended out of over 40 in Prince's last few years that compelled me to record my experiences. I am incredibly appreciative that I did so because my memories would now be tainted by the bitterness I feel from being evicted from a place that once felt like home to many members of the community. But during that weekend, the only thing I felt was pure joy...and some muscle fatigue from the uncontrollable dancing. Today was the first day since Prince's passing that I could bring myself to revisit what I had written two years ago. It injected some joy and life into me in a way I didn't think was possible anymore, and I achieved my own original intent of transferring the feelings and energy I felt in that moment. Please enjoy this review of the Piano & A Microphone Gala Weekend at Paisley Park on January 21-23, 2016:
There are few places in this universe that truly exude compassion the way Paisley Park does. This is the one place that epitomizes Prince; a place where the amount of love leaves no space for any sense of time. Although I have spent much of the past few years within those walls, I have never been able to transform my emotions into concrete thoughts until now. At previous shows, people have asked me to recall the set list, but providing a list of songs has never captured the experience. It isn’t about the songs that were played but rather the transfer of energy between individuals. The ability to feel free, even if only for a moment, is a much richer experience than trying to remember every little detail. I am simply writing in an attempt to extend this feeling to those who were not in attendance by sharing the connections created from the energy one generous man was willing to emit.
January 21st, 8pm: Piano & a Microphone Show 1
During this set, Prince showed us his soul in a way I never imagined I could experience. He allowed us to see a glimpse of his intimate relationship with the piano. Walking onto the stage, banging on the keys, and walking away. The crowd cheered, assuming Prince’s intention was to inject some humor into the moment. Our minds became aware of this misconception when Prince spoke, “the piano looks so much bigger…when you’re 3-years-old.” He guided us through a journey of his childhood and his struggle to be worthy of the path his father had worn into the earth. At 7, Prince’s parents were divorced, and he was “happy to see [his dad] go because now [he] could play anytime.” After hearing him play the first song he ever learned, the Batman Theme, Prince nearly gave up. “I wish I could play like dad.” My heart sank, as I’m sure many hearts in the room did; part of me sat there full of respect and intent, eager to live within this intimate moment for as long as I could, while the other part of me silently begged him not to go any further. “Maybe I’ll just listen to the radio.” Prince played along with the “voices coming from [his] stereo” but was frustrated by his lack of vocal talent compared to those of which he was attempting to mimic. With “Baby,” he brought us into his mind as he worked through the chord changes.
The expedition continued through each album up until Sign’O’ the Times then jumped around in his more recent catalog. What I find most interesting about this set was the evidence of time. The newer songs were almost untouched, staying fairly true to the recordings while older tunes were morphed by decades of alterations. His cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of U” was the most dynamic song in the entire set. Although it started off with the same tone as the version from One Nite Alone, he jammed on the tune in the funkiest way imaginable. “You’re in my blood like holy wine.” He repeated these words over and over, gradually adding more space between the notes. This inconsistent aperture is one of the most paralyzing things I have ever encountered. This emotion was conjured once again during the last song of the set, “Anna Stesia.” The moment was so sensitive, each person in the crowd was practically whispering the background vocals, striving to be considerate of the mood, while Prince boldly pushed through: “Liberate me!”
January 21st, 11pm: Piano & a Microphone Show 2
The phrase “dream set” has been used many times when listing off song requests. This set was indeed my dream set but not in the typical sense. I had zero expectations regarding the songs Prince would choose to perform. This openness allowed me to truly consume what he had to offer. He played favorites of mine including “The Dance,” “WOW,” “Look At Me, Look At U,” and “Call My Name,” but he also dared me to reconnect and re-imagine the possibilities dwelling within somewhat trite tunes.
One such song was “Purple Rain.” The first 3 songs of the set left me speechless, but when he started playing “Purple Rain,” I sat back and said, “Well…” By the end of the song, he had reached into my soul and pulled my appreciation for this track back up to the surface. When he sang “Honey, I know times are changing,” and surgically clobbered the lowest two octaves of the piano, I was left to stumble around in my own conceptions.
“Dear Mr. Man” took us into another realm of introspection. Prince included a couple lyric changes, including a reference to the situation in Flint, Michigan after asking, “who told us that water was a precious commodity?” Prince delved into current events for a second time with a reference to the upcoming presidential election. Before singing that there “ain’t no sense in voting,” he contemplated his choice in candidate and went on to ask, “Is God running?” After continuing to sing much of the rest of the song, he became trapped in that thought and repeated it twice more. “Is God running?”
Among one of the songs that I would have never thought to ask him to play was “Black Sweat” from 3121. We heard him sing the opening lyrics in 2004 on the Life O’ the Party documentary, so we knew this jam could be manipulated into a blues track. Despite this knowledge, his performance of the song caught me off guard and forced me onto my feet.
The last song of the night was “Free Urself,” which I had previously heard Prince perform live but definitely not like this. This song is not only contemplative of the past but also reminiscent of the future. He had the whole building singing together in a way that can only be described as freeing. Even after he left the stage, we continued to sing, “Free! Free yourself! You gotta free yourself!” Nobody was ready for the music to end, so we did what any sane group of people would and continued performing the show for a few minutes despite Prince’s absence.
January 22nd: Funky Friday
Thursday night made me hold my emotions captive but, by Friday night, I was ready to release them all on the dance floor. PHO was an amazing opening act. Their instrumental funk helped us transition the mood from the ballads of the previous evening to the face-twisting funk the rest of the night had to offer. They were one of the tightest bands I have ever seen on the Paisley Park stage, and it showed throughout their entire performance and on their album.
I had seen Larry Graham and Graham Central Station play two times previous to this performance, but neither of them could compare to the energy that is produced from being in a room full of people that genuinely love one another and respect music. Even though I knew nearly every song they played, it felt as if I was hearing it all for the first time. The one thing completely new to me was seeing Larry play acoustic bass. They got comfortable and ready to play an acoustic set. It looked as if they would be playing more mellow tunes, but the second Larry’s thumb started thumping those strings, I knew I was wrong. The ability to stay true to your sound while playing on acoustic instruments is a skill that I have yet to see another musician accomplish so masterfully.
Their performance of “Hair” was one that I don’t think anyone was ready for, including Larry. It took him a few tries to make it through the whole opening line because it was just so debilitating. The bass line smashed into my bones so hard, it was impossible to stand up straight.
After exiting the room during “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” the energy of the crowd pulled GCS back on stage for an encore. They jammed to “Now Do U Wanta Dance” from Raise Up and the classic Sly and the Family Stone song “I Want to Take You Higher,” and danced on stage with audience members (including myself and my friend, Danny); Larry’s wife, Tina; and their beautiful, young granddaughter (who had been dancing with Uncle Prince off to the side of the stage earlier in the show). I can’t iterate enough how incredible of an experience it is to dance to some of the best music in the world with people that I have the deepest love for.
January 23rd: Dance Party
Thursday and Friday night were absolutely everything, but it still didn’t seem like enough. I had so much energy that was screaming to get out of my body, and a dance party was exactly the remedy I needed. DJ Mike was spinning all of the jams, including “Get on the Boat,” “Northside,” and a remix of “Get Wild,” to only name a few. Every single muscle in my legs was sore from dancing too much the night before, but I couldn’t stop myself from ignoring their pleas for the night off.
After dancing for a few hours, with the projector switching between scenes from “Barbarella” and various NPG concerts, Prince came out to man the turntables for a while. I practically had to fight my way through the crowd to be able to make it away from his DJ booth to an empty spot on the dance floor near the stage. He played old hits mixed in with new jams, but it all sounded fresh. A few beats into “X’s Face,” Prince said, “Josh really stepped on this one.” My funk face through the entire set was uncontrollable, it was as if the beats were constantly stepping on me. I grooved so hard that I can barely recall the songs that were played; I only remember the way it made me feel. The one thing I clearly remember was during “17 Days,” Prince had us singing, “let the snow come down…” I looked to Danny, whose arms were crossed and lips were locked. Apparently Danny can’t stand the snow as much as Biscuit can’t stand the rain.
The last song DJ Mike played was “Paisley Park.” The words resonated in my chest as I danced to the one song that perfectly describes this beautiful place. The house lights came up halfway through the song, but I closed my eyes and it was dark once more. The song faded out and the only thing we could bring ourselves to do was to just hug each other and transfer that last bit of energy. The lights come up, the music fades, the nights end, but I can still close my eyes and delve into my memories.