“I got 45,000 [people] in here that say nobody do it like Prince do!”
By the screams inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the 56-year-old rocker was right. By all estimates, Prince’s return to the ESSENCE Festival and officially opening up our 20th anniversary brought fans to their feet when he took the stage with his band, the New Power Generation. Earlier in the night he teased audiences by popping out during the performances of his personally selected opening acts Janelle Monae and Nile Rodgers. He wasn’t intrusive to their sets—he played guitar on Rodger’s cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”—but once he was on stage, fans went wild.
Then the real moment came and fans, dressed in purple at the request of His Majesty, jumped to their feet. Off stage, Prince opened the show with the first lines of “Let’s Go Crazy” (“Dearly beloved…”) but by the time he was center stage, he announced we were in for 14 songs. For the next hour, Prince went through a succession of his most notable songs, some performed as fans remembered them best (“Take Me with U” and “Raspberry Beret”) and some stripped down or funked up with this 5 piece horn section. He also performed songs he’d written for Sheila E. (“The Glamorous Life”) and The Time—there was collective audience participation during “Cool” as Prince did the hands signs for C-O-O-L.
During most of his 3 hour show, Prince bounced around the stage with boundless energy, gleefully directing NPG on shifts and turns he was taking with music or asking audiences to support him in a soul clap. Festival goers were eager to go with the flow, especially after he playfully announced “sound checks were over” after singing for 30 minutes.
Prince’s giddiness gave way to something more profound when he said, “30 years ago today, ‘When Doves Cry’ was playing on the radio.” More cheers erupted as he played the song from the keyboard and shouted “You know how many hits I got?” To prove his point, Prince went into “Sign O’ the Times,” “Hot Thang” and “Controversy.” What happened next was by far one of the coolest moments in the night that didn’t involve a song: Prince asked for everyone to take out their cell phones and show them to him. The SuperDome lit up like a starry night as nearly 40,000 people lit their phone screens. The visual was the perfect segue for “1999” as he begun singing the lyrics “I was dreaming when I woke this.” But with one dramatic wave of his arms, the crowd went quiet and sat down in a sea of red light. Standing at the keyboard, he started the chords for “Little Red Corvette” and transitioned into an almost gospel rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
As the house lights went back up, Prince jokingly asks for any requests, which folks yelled out “Darling Nikki!” “Sexy Mutha!” “Adore!” Prince had other plans and said, “since y’all cannot pick one, I’ll choose one and “Kiss” begins. Everyone jumped up in approval, laughing when he changes the lyrics “you don’t have to watch Dynasty” to “you don’t have to watch Real Housewives.”
After playing with such fervor, Prince walks off stage, clearly signaling his first act was done–it’s time for some newness. Lianne la Havas joined him for a hauntingly beautiful take of “Sometimes it Snows in April,” accompanied by New Orleans native Trombone Shorty. As the song ended, Prince said to the audience, “you’re in the most special place on earth right now.” He continued giving Trombone a spotlight on two new songs and then told the audience good night. The thing is, we weren’t ready for him to stop. Two encores later, including a performance of “Purple Rain” that was as powerful watching it on screen 30 years ago. Purple still reigns.