Without backup singers, a band, or much in the way of pyrotechnics beyond a few candelabras and some swirling digital graphics, Prince commanded the stage at Atlanta’s Fox Theater exactly a week ago. It was just the pop icon and a piano, those who were in the audience that evening said.
“It was more like a church service than a concert,” said Jake Reuse, a 29-year-old sports reporter from Athens, Ga. “It was such a racially diverse crowd. Everyone was singing and dancing.”
It was also the last concert that Prince would ever give, something that shocked many audience members, who claim that aside from a slight hoarseness in his speaking voice, the singer gave a performance for the ages. At various points, Prince would jog around the stage, and, after a particularly compelling rendition, would step back with the confidence of a basketball star who had just hit a perfect three-point shot.
“The whole performance was electric,” said Reuse. “It’s hard to imagine someone being so alive and so powerful and now we get the news that things weren’t going well.”
Last Sunday, after TMZ reported that Prince had fallen ill during a plane flight, he made a short appearance outside his Minneapolis estate, showing off a new piano while playing “Chopsticks,” according to a report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
“Wait a few days before you waste any prayers,” said Prince.
Prince played two shows that night in Atlanta — one at 7 p.m. and another at 10 p.m., each lasting a little over an hour as part of his Piano & a Microphone tour. Among the songs he played were a slowed down version of “Little Red Corvette,” a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and, in what would be his final live song, “Purple Rain.” In addition to some of his best known hits, Prince also sang “Joy and Repetition” and “Do Me Baby,” two numbers rarely played in concert.
“His voice sounded strong when he sang,” said Alba Anthony, a 38-year-old human resources worker who saw the 7 p.m. show. “He put a lot of energy into it. He’d jump up and do piano tricks where he’d turn to the side and sort of cross his legs.”
At one point during the earlier show, Prince became overwhelmed with emotion, and briefly retreated to the wings.
“He played a song and left the stage, and we thought the concert was over so we started chanting for more,” said Celeste Headlee, a public radio show host in Atlanta. Prince returned, telling the audience, “sometimes you forget how emotional this music is.”
On Thursday, police found an unresponsive Prince in an elevator at his Paisley Park Studios home. A cause of death has not been given.
The appearances in Atlanta were makeup performances for concerts cancelled earlier this month after the singer’s representatives said he had come down with the flu. Many in the audience said there was little evidence that Prince was gravely ill. However, some close to the singer began to feel that Prince was grappling with health issues. Particularly troubling were reports on April 15 that the singer’s plane had to make an emergency landing when he fell ill mid-flight.
“It just kept gnawing at me that something wasn’t right,” said Owen Husney, Prince’s first manager from 1976 to 1980, who arranged his first record deal with Warner Bros., “I had the feeling that there was something more to it.”
Husney became more concerned when it was announced that Prince was working on a memoir, scheduled to be published in 2017. He also heard that the singer was looking into setting up his Paisley Park estate, so that it could be a public, Graceland-like visitors attraction.
“This is not something you do while you are still living,” said Husney.
The manager has been fielding media inquiries all day. It’s made him think back to his early days guiding the pop star before he became a household name, when he was just a preternaturally gifted musical force.
“He was young and vulnerable, and I could get to see who he was and that person was highly creative and highly intelligent and he had a work ethic that went beyond anything else,” said Husney. “He was confident of his own talent. And he knew what he was capable of.”
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Exactly one week ago I attended the most meaningful concert experience of my life. Prince gave us a gift that night. We all felt it. His fans spanned every race, age, sexuality. It was us and him and a piano. I was moved to tears. His songs, his personality, his life, his energy filled the intimate Theater in Atlanta. I had already felt the night was gifted to me by a higher power, to be alive at the same time as an artist who could give to his fans the way he gave to us. Who could radiate talent and love in equal parts. When he ended the show playing Purple Rain our hearts were so full. We found out he hadn't played the song for any other concert in Atlanta, just ours, what would end up being his last concert ever. Thank you for the amazing gift you gave us and will continue to give us with your music. I'll spend my life trying to bring people together the way you did one week ago at the Fox Theater. Thank you. #rip #prince #heartbroken #whendovescry
— CeeLo Green (@CeeLoGreen) April 15, 2016
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