SXSW: Prince shuts it down in style at La Zona Rosa
The Minneapolis wonder brings the music festival to a crescendo
As "Purple Rain" was building to a crescendo about an hour into his dazzling, hard-working performance that closed out the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas on Saturday night, Prince paused to say a few words.
"I love being a musician," the 54 year old Minneapolis wonder said. "It feels like being a servant. A servant to you." (Though in his mind, he probably spelled it "A servant 2 U.")
And though he was pretending to be wrapping up his set at the time before the crowd of 1300 fans pinching themselves for scoring a ticket to maybe the most in-demand show in SXSW's 27 year history, it turned out Prince was just starting his evening of service.
Because from there, the bandleader who fronted a 22 person, frightingly funky and astoundingly versatile ensemble that goes by the longtime Prince band name New Power Generation, went on to play six encores, with a combined length stetching to almost twice as long as the set that preceded it.
"You've heard of five hour energy?," the impish musical polymath asked. "Eleven hour energy is my middle name." He also taunted the audience during one of several phony goodbyes: "Goodnight, Austin. Don't make me hurt you: Do you know how many hits I have?"
A lot, and while changing costumes often, beginning with a sleek blue suit and finishing in a leather vest and a stuffed animal hat - to match those worn by his 9 member horn section - he did a good number of them, including "1999," and "U Got The Look." But with the assistance of four female singers (who also danced as most everybody does on stage and off, at a Prince show), he also did plenty of other people's songs, and songs he wrote for other people.
In particular, he dug deep into the 1980s catalog of The Time, getting bodies moving with "Cool," "Jungle Love" and "The Bird." With powerhouse drummer John Blackwell as anchor, the band moved through Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately?"
He started one particularly epic encore segment with "Curtis Mayfield's "We're A Winner," which he prefaced by saying, "This is the kind of music that used to lift us up, that made us feel like we wanted to be something." He asked the crowd how many of them were familiar with Mayfield, and when not enough sounded out in the affirmative, he tut-tutted and said "I see we have some young folk here."
After the Mayfield tune, the master class in "Musicology" continued with one of NPG's female vocalists stepping forward for Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)" and the erotic ballad "Satisfied," on which he sang the line "Turn off your cell phone, baby!" even though the show was sponsored by mobile device maker Samsung, whom Prince thanked for calling him because "I guess they decided Austin needed some funk."
That tune was followed by a brilliant on-the-one workout of James Brown's "I Don't Want No One To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I'll Get It Myself)" and Prince's own shuddering "Housequake."
In the course of the 2 hour 40 minute evening, Prince played piano, and (beautifully) sang piano ballads, most notably "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)," a song from 1999 I had completely forgotten about. What he did not do, all night long, was play guitar, somewhat perversely, since he not only is one of the world's great lead players, but also he began the evening by correctly commenting on the Austin's notoriety for its axemen. You might have thought that he would be out to teach them a thing or two, but he apparently had other priorities on his mind. Such as proving that "there ain't no party like a purple party," which, there most assuredly is not.
As 3 a.m. drew near and he came out for his sixth and what turned out to be final encore, which began with "Act of God," he said "They say we only have 20 minutes. Can we make it the best 20 minutes of our lives?" If it didn't succeed in reaching that elevated goal for everyone in the room, you couldn't blame Prince. He did his part.