No tribute to an artist of Prince’s majesty can be perfect, but at first glance the lineup for “Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince” — which taped Tuesday night and will air on CBS on April 21 — did not make one’s heart skip a beat. While the show’s musical foundation could not have been stronger — Prince’s longtime collaborators Sheila E., Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were musical directors of an ace house band, and the Revolution and The Time performed as well — some of the featured singers seemed like less inspired choices. Chris Martin instead of Maxwell, whose live sets include killer versions of “Nothing Compares 2U” and “Beautiful Ones”? Foo Fighters for their rawk cover of “Darling Nikki” instead of, say, Janelle Monae singing “Kiss”? (We’ll leave Prince’s greatest musical offspring, the elusive D’Angelo, out of this conversation because even though he lit up a 2013 tribute concert in New York, if he agreed to perform at this one, he probably would have bailed at the last minute.)
But as Tuesday night’s triumphant show proved, appearances can be deceiving. While not everyone nailed their performances and a couple fell flat, there were far more strong ones than not — other performers included Beck, Common, Gary Clark Jr., Earth, Wind & Fire, H.E.R., John Legend, Mavis Staples and St. Vincent — and some of the seemingly unlikely matches of singers with songs turned out to be truly inspired. Several were stellar (and this is coming from a deep and longtime Prince fan).
These Grammy tributes — past ones include Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Elton John and others — follow a familiar format, with the performances interspersed with brief speeches. Of course, it was a television taping, so there were several-minute gaps between the songs that were filled with vintage videos, which looked amazing on the giant screens on either side of the large, Prince-symbol-shaped stage that filled the front of a giant room in the Los Angeles Convention Center. But apart from a pair of retakes, the concert ran very smoothly, with characteristic Ken Ehrlich professionalism. Comics Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen and Prince friends like Naomi Campbell and dancer Misty Copeland gave brief, anecdote-filled introductions, the latter of whom spoke of Prince’s appreciation of and respect for female musicians and artists (indeed, he had no backing band that did not feature at least one woman). Fittingly, there were many female performers on this night.
The show kicked off with H.E.R. — resplendent in a shiny white suit — and Gary Clark Jr. trading off guitar solos and verses on a lively version of “Let’s Go Crazy.” Things slowed down for John Legend, who sang “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which he introduced by saying “Prince kept giving this song away,” referring to its original 1985 release by the Family and the later hit version by Sinead O’Connor, “but it kept coming back to him.”
Curiously, Colombian superstar Juanes (presumably to add some Latin flavor to the lineup?) was chosen to sing “1999.” It is not a challenging song to sing, but a complicated, characteristically Prince flourish by the band toward the end threw him off and they had to do a second take.
There were many such complex musical flourishes throughout the night: Sheila E. knows the canon as well as virtually any musician, and as both musical director and featured performer, she sang and played percussion on nearly every song (and drums on a couple) and led the band. The arrangements showed a deep knowledge of Prince’s ever-morphing live sets — she was his full-time drummer for three years — and featured deft vamps and licks that will be familiar to fans from bootlegs and concerts.
Next up was Ehrlich favorite Common, who gave a spoken intro to “Sign O’ the Times” but remained onstage as Sheila and two percussionists marched to the front with drums, marching-band style (as they do in the 1987 concert film). She sang the verses but Common delivered a rap toward the end, which was okay but felt a bit sacrilegious; it was the only major posthumous alteration to one of the evening’s songs.
Things picked up when H.E.R. returned (in a completely different outfit) and delivered a gorgeous version of “The Beautiful Ones” from behind a futuristically shaped keyboard while Misty Copeland performed balletic gyrations across the stage. For the song’s soaring climax, H.E.R. picked up the mic and went out to the edge of the stage, amping up the intensity without hitting Prince’s high-pitched shrieks.
After a long break during which the Foo Fighters’ imposing banks of amps, drums and keyboards were rolled onstage, frontman Dave Grohl mentioned the band’s 20-year-old cover of “Darling Nikki” — “I don’t think he liked it” — but then talked about Prince covering their song, “The Best of You,” during the “greatest Super Bowl performance in history,” adding “I loved it.” He then said that a couple of years later, he “somehow found myself jamming alone with Prince in an empty arena, playing ‘Whole Lotta Love,’” which he called “the greatest experience in my pop life.”
Sure enough, that led directly into a cover of Prince’s 1985 hit “Pop Life” — and the Foo Fighters absolutely crushed it, with drummer Taylor Hawkins leading them through some slick start-stop rhythmic tricks in the second verse. After they’d finished, Sheila said they weren’t allowed to leave without performing another song, and they finished with “Darling Nikki.”
Next up were The Time — featuring original members Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — who tore the roof off with a three-song medley of “Jungle Love,” “Cool” and “The Bird,” squeezing their all of their trademark elements — Morris Day’s flamboyance, Jerome Benton’s dancing, the mirror and most of all the band’s still-formidable funk ability — into a tight seven minutes.
Things took a psychedelic turn when Beck proved a perfect match for “Raspberry Beret.” Clad in a loose white suit complete with a cravat (in subtle homage to the song’s original video), he sailed smoothly through the song’s joyful melody, with the band, a violinist and backing singers providing deft flourishes. The instruments dropped out for a singalong on the final chorus, and he closed with a brief falsetto vamp before saying “I love you, Prince.”
Yet the most inspired performer/song match may have come from one of Prince’s great influences: Earth, Wind and Fire performing his gorgeous 1987 soul ballad “Adore” (which just happened to be this writer’s wedding song). Phillip Bailey’s still-soaring falsetto almost outmatched Prince’s on the song, and Verdine White’s powerful bass gave it a bottom that the original doesn’t possess. Bailey closed out the song with a sky-scraping falsetto solo that saw him holding the last note for around 30 seconds. Stunning.
Next up, St. Vincent paid visual tribute to Prince’s otherworldly side by appearing clad in knee-high spike-heeled boots, ultra-short shorts and a frilly gauze top, with her oddly shaped guitar slung over one shoulder — a look Prince unquestionably would have approved. She opened by telling a story about how she was about to go onstage at a New York concert when her tour manager came running up: “Prince is here!” He watched the show from a spot up in the balcony, “With his glasses and his effortless cool — but of course all I could see [through the entire show] was Prince.”
She then eased into “Controversy,” a song that may have been chosen more for its lyrical match with her persona than her music — but she powered through its choppy riff nonetheless, doing some low-key guitar shredding at the end. Next up was a return visit from Gary Clark Jr. for Prince’s faith-based 1987 song “The Cross.” Clark’s voice couldn’t quite reach the level of spiritual passion that Prince’s did, but he was more than up to the task for the blazing guitar solo at the end.
Miguel, the performer who most physically resembles Prince, also indisputably won the evening’s award for Artist Trying Hardest to Channel Prince, taking the stage in a “Purple Rain”-inspired gauzey white getup — complete with lace gloves — and did an almost comically over-the-top display of elaborate hand and arm gestures. Unfortunately, he did not apply the same level of care to his mic control and was inaudible for much of “I Would Die 4U,” and had to do a second take. The song began with a slow intro but soon kicked into the familiar tempo, with Miguel delivering some Prince-derived dancing — briefly joined by Sheila E. after her Latin-flavored percussion solo in the middle — dropping to his knees, spinning and finishing the song in a split.
Next up was an awkward duet by the Bangles’ Susannah Hoffs and Coldplay’s Chris Martin (who also played piano) on “Manic Monday,” about which the less said the better. The pair’s harmonies were rough and seemingly under-rehearsed, and because they didn’t do a second take, it seems likely the performance will either be re-shot at some point or dropped from the broadcast. (Grammy tributes often feature performances recorded elsewhere; classics missing on this night included “Kiss,” “When Doves Cry,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Cream,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and more.)
The show wound toward its finale with a powerhouse headline performance from Sheila E., now clad in a yellow jumpsuit inspired by Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls” phase. She tore through a rousing medley of “America,” with a snippet of “Free” and then her Prince-penned hit “The Glamorous Life.” She gave it her all, dancing, leading the backing singers out into the audience and delivering a lively and inspired timbale solo at the end.
Finally, after a long pause, the crowd erupted when the drum kit bearing the words “The Revolution” was wheeled onstage. The group has been touring regularly over the past three years, with guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman handling lead vocals. Here, they were accompanied by Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum (who perform as a Prince tribute act called Princess) for a bounce through “Delirious,” before Wendy and Lisa took the lead on a towering version of “Mountains.”
The main set ended, of course, with “Purple Rain,” for which the Revolution was joined by soul icon Mavis Staples. This is not a song a singer can half-step, and Mavis played with some of the phrasing but delivered it powerfully. Drummer Bobby Z added stinging accents while Wendy played a goose-bump solo.
The group remained onstage as Ehrlich called a number of performers — including Grohl, Miguel, Clark and Princess — back to the stage for the “Purple Rain”-era finale “Baby I’m a Star,” during which the show passed the four-hour mark.
Tribute shows — and covers in general — are always a risky proposition and run the gamut from “stunning homage” to “could have been worse” to “what were they thinking?” To fans, a bad Prince cover is an act of war, but with an absolutely killer house band, Sheila’s sterling direction and a near-peerless collection of songs sung by several inspired singers, the Grammy tribute hit the mark far more often than not. It’s just too bad the hot percussionist below had to play “Erotic City” outside the arena…