If Thursday night’s all-star tribute to Prince – including appearances by D’Angelo, Elvis Costello, the Blind Boys of Alabama and ex-Saturday Night Live star Maya Rudolph – had a theme, it was that the Minneapolis pop genius’ best work could withstand just about any kind of treatment and stand tall. The latest of Carnegie Hall’s annual music-education benefits for underprivileged youth – this one, a sellout, raised over $100,000 – featured a few heavy hitters but also a lot of curveballs, befitting an artist who has played hard-to-get as often as he has played the accessible hit-maker.
At least some of those curves had to have come from Questlove, the Roots’ drummer and musical director for the show. The Roots provided unwavering support for most of the acts, accompanied on guitar by Wendy Melvoin of the Revolution, the band that backed Prince on Purple Rain.
In many cases, the performers took chances on well-known songs. Or not-so-well-known, as was the case with Costello, who near the end sang an unreleased Prince song called “Moonbeam Levels” (known to many bootleg collectors as “A Better Place to Die”). Which of these two ultra-music-geeks onstage decided on that one – Costello, the man who once wrote a listener’s guide to a 24-hour cycle, or Questlove, with his complete collection of Soul Train episodes? Either way, the song scored big, as did much of the night.
There were low spots – sometimes a tribute show is just a tribute show, especially when it involves Citizen Cope, who did a desultory busker’s version of “Pop Life” with Alice Smith. Bhi Bhiman’s “When Doves Cry” was similarly monochromatic – gutsy, if boring. It was a nice idea to have a kids’ choir do “Raspberry Beret,” accompanying Booker T. Jones on organ, but it was too scattered to catch heat.
Devotchka’s “Mountains” (a minor hit from 1986’s Parade, and Prince at his psychedelic-poppiest) had a faultless arrangement – the violin, tuba and trumpet were apt touches – but Nick Urata’s strained vocals were a distraction.
Most of the time, though, the show cooked. The Waterboys’ Mike Scott and Steve Wickham opened with “Purple Rain,” which seemed strange given that song’s showstopper status, but Scott sang it straight and true, and violinist Wickham took the iconic solo, a rousing switch-up that prompted the first of the evening’s many standing ovations.
Melvoin was hardly the only old Prince hand onstage at Carnegie. Eric Leeds, the saxophonist from Prince’s Sign ‘o’ the Times and Lovesexy bands, soloed on “Ten” (by Madhouse, his old Prince-sponsored jazz-funk unit), and sat in for much of the rest. St. Paul Peterson and Susannah Melvoin of the Family, a mid-’80s Prince act, joined for “High Fashion/Mutiny,” off 1985’s The Family – another cult favorite that the knowledgeable crowd ate up. Susannah (Wendy’s twin sister, who dated Prince for many years) strutted around the stage in a white pantsuit, looking like she was having the time of her life.
Read more: RollingStone