Last Tuesday CBS aired a very important program. Officially titled Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince, the show as a tribute to the late Prince, who died exactly four years ago from its initial air date. The show got such a great reaction that CBS re-aired it Saturday night.
I recorded the Tuesday broadcast and watched it Thursday afternoon. It was outstanding! These tribute shows can often go off the rails, become mawkish, or serve more as vehicles for the performers than the honoree. None of that was the case Tuesday.
I admit, some of the artists I was not familiar with. But most I was. And most did an outstanding job. I thought I would rank the performances, in reverse order.
Tier 1 – Meh
Juanes, “1999” – I had no idea who this guy was. I will admit his voice sounded almost uncannily like how Prince sang this song. But the fact I had no idea who he was, and he was remarkably faithful to the original didn’t do much for me.
Chris Martin and Susanna Hoffs, “Manic Monday” – Man, I do not know what they were thinking here. Why was Chris Martin’s presence needed? If all the Bangles don’t want to get together to perform, Susanna would have been just fine on her own. And why did they take a bouncy, infectious song and turn it into a slow ballad? The biggest disappointment of the night.
H.E.R., “The Beautiful Ones” – Another artist I had no knowledge of. She has a lovely voice. It just was not fit for this song. That was most obvious in the back half of the song, when Prince screamed the lines, “What’s it gonna be, baby? Do you want him? Or do you want me? ‘Cuz I want you!” H.E.R. couldn’t capture a fraction of the passion from the original, which kind of defeats the point of the song.
Beck, “Raspberry Beret” – Beck could not be more opposite of Prince. Where Prince was graceful, athletic, and smooth, Beck is all awkward shrugs and jolts of movement. And where Prince was passionate and expressive, Beck is mellow and flat. It’s hard to mess up one of the greatest pop songs ever, and Beck did a reasonable job. But it was the visuals of this performance that struck me as off.
Miguel, “I Would Die 4 U” – I know this guy’s name but don’t know his music. Opposite of Beck: a fine visual performance but nothing special about the vocals.
Common and Sheila E, “Sign O’ the Times” – I like Common, positive dude. This felt like forcing him into the broadcast in a spot that he just didn’t fit.
St. Vincent, “Controversy” – This was a perfect matching of artist to song that fell flat for me. St. Vincent is one of the most obvious direct links between a modern artist back to Prince, with her pushing of sexual boundaries, her image, and her willingness to make pop music that can be uncomfortable. She just seemed a little tense to me. A looser performance may have ranked higher.
Tier 2 – Flawed But Enjoyable
H.E.R. and Gary Clark, Jr., “Let’s Go Crazy” – Again, you can’t really go wrong with some of these songs. I don’t know if this pairing should have been the first of the night. I think you put a more known artist in this spot. Or take a newer artist and pair them with someone from the ‘80s.
Princess, “Delirious” – How many of you knew Maya Rudolph had a Prince cover band? I did, but I admit I’ve only seen them perform once before. This was light-hearted and fun, but not real memorable.
Sheila E., “America,” “Free” and “The Glamorous Life” – Sheila E. put this event together, so she rightly had a major role in the night, serving as musical director and leading the backing band on most songs. That meant she was on stage a lot. With that in mind, I’m not sure she needed a three-song set. Just sing “The Glamorous Life” and be done. A fine performance that was simply too long.
Tier 3 – The Highlights
Foo Fighters, “Darling Nikki” – Remember when this song got Tripper Gore all worked up? And now it’s being played on network TV in prime time without editing any lyrics. We’ve come a long way in 35 years. Good to have a rock artist involved in the evening.
Usher, “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss” – This performance was recorded during the Grammy award show, and it was absolutely great. I’m not sure what Usher is doing these days but he can still put on a show. This was, again though, a performance that showed just how great Prince was. Usher was dancing, singing, putting on a hell of a show. Basically doing what Prince would have done. But his vocal performance was about 80–85% of what Prince would have done. Prince was not just a phenomenal performer, not just one of the greatest musicians ever, not just a great singer. He did all of that, at the same time, and he sang in all kinds of different registers, from low and smokey to falsetto to screaming. And he always sounded great. Usher could not quite match what Prince’s vocals would have been.
Gary Clark, Jr., “The Cross” – One of my favorite Prince deep cuts, this was a good pairing of performer and song. You needed someone who could shred a guitar solo to handle this, and Clark did a fine job.
The Time, “Jungle Love,” Cool” and “the Bird” – In some ways the highlight of the night was seeing the original Time – including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who Prince had kicked out before the Purple Rain/Ice Cream Castles cycle – on stage, doing their Time thing: the Morris and Jerome mirror act., the entire band dancing in sync like in their Purple Rain performances. And appearing to be having a hell of a good time while doing it. Prince’s history with the Time was full of complications, ill will, and controversy. It’s been good to hear those guys all speak highly of Prince since his death. It would have been easy to be bitter about how his ego may have cost them bigger careers than they had.
John Legend, “Nothing Compares 2 U” – I’m not a huge John Legend fan, but he sang the hell out of this song.
Earth, Wind, & Fire, “Adore” – The absolute surprise of the night. I never expected to see Earth Wind and Fire on stage at a Prince tribute. I wasn’t sure how many of them were still alive. (Founding member Maurice White died four years ago.) But Philip Bailey is still around, still hitting those high notes, and just nailed this song. I was literally hooting and clapping during this song it was so unexpected.
Mavis Staples and the Revolution, “Purple Rain” – Prince’s signature song, one of the greatest songs ever, played by the Revolution. You could have put just about anyone on vocals and this would have been a thrill. Staples obviously offered a very different interpretation of the song than Prince did. But sung from her perspective, it really resonated with me.
The Revolution sounded great. What floored me, though, was seeing Wendy Melvoin play Prince’s guitar solo. She was certainly capable, she’s a magnificent player and had her share of solos on the Revolution’s songs. But this seems like Prince’s ultimate solo. With them time-editing other songs I wondered if they would skip over it. It was kind of emotional for me to see her play it. I’d rather her play it than anyone else but it was still jarring to me.
In all, a fine way to memorialize Prince. I know the timing on these events can be odd, but I wondered why Janelle Monáe was not included. She’s one of the few current artists that Prince had a direct relationship with and she’s likely the current artist that carries on his spirit better than anyone else. I wonder if she wasn’t available, wasn’t interested, or wasn’t asked. A minor quibble with an entertaining program.