Star-Studded Lineup Pays Tribute to Prince at Carnegie Hall: Concert Review

Maya Rudolph Gretchen Lieberum The Music of Prince - H 2013
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Highlights were plentiful in this terrific Prince tribute show.

Elvis Costello, The Roots, Citizen Cope and many others contribute to a benefit concert of Prince songs, both famous and obscure.

If Tom Jones’ “Kiss” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 You” demonstrated that the songs of Prince well lend themselves to distinctive cover versions, then Thursday’s night multi-artist tribute show to the performer definitively made the case.

Presented by Michael Dorf and benefiting such worthy arts-education programs as Young Audiences New York and the American Symphony Orchestra’s Music Notes, The Music of Prince was an exhilaratingly funky affair. Again featuring The Roots as a supremely versatile house band, this ninth edition of the annual series featured such heavyweights as Elvis Costello, Booker T. Jones, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Bettye LaVette and D’Angelo performing alongside up-and-comers like Bhi Bhiman, Devotchka and Kat Edmonson.

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Several of the performers had a personal association with the guest of honor, who sadly failed to make an appearance. The Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin played on several numbers, while Fdeluxe -- featuring such former members of The Family as Eric Leeds, Susannah Melvoin and St. Paul Peterson -- ripped through “High Fashion” and “Mutiny.”

The show began with a startling version of “Purple Rain” performed by The Waterboys, with Steve Wickham replicating Prince’s original guitar solo on electric fiddle. Such revisions made for some of the evening’s most memorable moments. Devotchka, featuring such instruments as tuba, trumpet and sax, gave a unique spin to “Mountains”; jazz singer Edmonson, accompanied by a pianist, sang a hauntingly plaintive version of “The Beautiful Ones”; and Citizen Cope and Alice Smith delivered a stark, acoustic version of the normally bouncy “Pop Life.”

The Blind Boys of Alabama delivered “The Cross” with a powerful gospel fervor, while Talib Kweli rapped a version of “Annie Christian” that included references to such gun violence victims as Trayvon Martin. Jones, accompanied by a youth choir and singer Diane Birch, played a rendition of “Raspberry Beret” that was marred by a sound mix that rendered his keyboard playing unintelligible. LaVette infused “Kiss” with a sexy swagger that belied her age, while Bilal, often imitating Prince’s signature falsetto, delivered a frenzied version of “Sister” that made one wonder why this talented performer hasn’t yet become a major star.

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Bhiman delivered a mesmerizing acoustic version of “When Doves Cry,” his powerful voice fully mining the song’s emotional urgency. And Costello’s performance of the unreleased “Moonbeam Levels” demonstrated that Prince’s castoffs are better than most singer-songwriters’ hits.

The evening featured plenty of comic moments as well. Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen popped up periodically, not only singing and playing drums but also delivering a hilarious recital of the intro to “Let’s Go Crazy.” Chris Rock performed a mock dramatic reading of an excerpt from “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Sandra Bernhard delivered a floridly campy version of “Little Red Corvette,” dedicated to “those who have lived life on the edge,” such as Apollonia, Vanity and Sheila E. But nothing was funnier than the sight of the heavily pregnant Maya Rudolph, performing with Gretchen Lieberum as their Prince cover band Princess, bumping and grinding to such songs as “Darling Nikki.”

The two-hour-plus show ended with D’Angelo performing an extended funk jam on “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” followed by the entire lineup partying like it was “1999.” “Thank you for coming out tonight,” Rock said at the conclusion. “We raised a lot of money for Prince.”

Set List

"Purple Rain," The Waterboys
"Ten/I Wonder U," The Roots and Eric Leeds
"Raspberry Beret," Booker T. Jones, with choir and Diane Birch
"Nothing Compares 2 You," Nina Perrson
"High Fashion/Mutiny," Fdeluxe (The Family)
"Little Red Corvette," Sandra Bernhard
"Mountains," Devotchka
"When Doves Cry," Bhi Bhiman
"The Beautiful Ones," Kat Edmonson
"The Cross," The Blind Boys of Alabama
"Pop Life," Citizen Cope and Alice Smith
"Annie Christian," Talib Kweli
"Sister," Bilal
"Kiss," Bettye LaVette
"Darling Nikki," Princess
"Moonbeam Levels," Elvis Costello
"It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," D’Angelo
"1999," Ensemble

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