SXSW: Prince Rocks Festival With Marathon of Encores

Prince SXSW 2013 live P
John Sciulli for Samsung

About halfway through a marathon series of encores lasting nearly an hour and a half during his show at La Zona Rosa during South By Southwest last night, Prince asked the audience if they were done partying. Of course, they were not. “You know 5-hour Energy,” Minneapolis's favorite son asked, referencing the drink, “my middle name is 11-hour Energy.”

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A slight exaggeration, sure, but to the show's attendees, all of whom were rounding out the final night of Austin's non-stop annual music blast, it surely felt like Prince's stamina was something out of a book of legends.

Backed by a 20-something piece band, including a massive, crack horn section that entered through the audience, clad in animal spirit-hoots and playing their hearts out, and a Skrillex-haired female guitarist that Prince referred to only as “Donna”, he kept going and going, energizer-bunny style: a heartfelt, piano ballad here, a punctuated cover of Michael Jackson's “Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough” there.

These sorts of shows are always tricky propositions for their performers: the whole thing was an open secret, but most attendees had to enter to win via their Samsung phones (the tech sponsor had a massive presence throughout both the show and the festival, with an enormous video screen blasting its logo and everything from product-demos to tweet-for-a-new-battery activations).

That meant that the audience was full, mostly, of passive Prince fans rather than die-hards; the wrong setlist could mean disapointment, especially from an icon notorious for responding negatively to crowd passivity (openers A Tribe Called Quest smartly fell on the play-the-hits side of the equation, getting nothing but love for hip-hop mainstays like “Bonita Applebaum”).

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Though the room shared some members of the audience, by the end of the three-hour-plus show the club still felt full even as it became clear this wasn't going to be a greatest-hits fest. (That said, both “1999” and “Purple Rain” were moving as ever, with Prince letting the audience sing the “whoa-oh-oh-ohs” that close the latter to end the set proper.)

Prince – sadly – never picked up a guitar, letting Donna hit metal-style licks instead; he only sat down at a keyboard for short, measured measures, propping up a typically-funky rager with 16 bars before grabbing the mic, again, James Brown-style, to make it clear he was running the room.

“20 minutes left!,” he declared, five costume changes and at least eight horn solos in, as it was getting near to 3 am. “You think we can make it the best 20 minutes of our lives?” And as the band made its way into Janet Jackson's “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” for the lucky few in the room, there was no question that that goal seemed somewhat achievable – even if their bodies were too tired from a week in Austin to show it as exuberantly as Prince himself.