Music on Saturday at SXSW: Prince Played Five Encores, Lives Were Changed

Music Features SXSW

In Case You Missed It:

Day 1: Sunday at SXSW Interactive: Jeffrey Tambor is a Spiritual Healer
Day 2: Following the Comedy on Monday at SXSW: Jesse Ventura Will Haunt Your Dreams
Day 3: A Film Study on Tuesday at SXSW: The Mythology of Muscle Shoals
Day 4: Music on Wednesday at SXSW: Nick Cave Owns the Night
Day 5: Music on Thursday at SXSW: Psych, Wayne Coyne and the Screamin’ Eagle of Soul
Day 6: Music on Friday at SXSW: Time to Rock

The day after he presented at the Grammys, I spent about half an hour watching Prince interviews on YouTube. These things happen when you don’t have a day job. In one with what looked like a local TV station, he was asked what his live performances mean to him and how is still able bring it every single time after so many years. Prince took on an especially sincere tone and spoke about how at every show he plays there’s someone there seeing him for the first time. How could he let them down?

I knew, then, to expect big things from his performance at Samsung’s SXSW-ending event at La Zona Rosa on Saturday night, but nothing could have prepared me for what took place over the course of the three hours he was on stage, and there’s really no way I can even come close to doing the experience justice in this post.

By the time things shut down a little after 3 a.m., I had almost entirely forgotton that A Tribe Called Quest had played four hours earlier in front of a large Samsung Galaxy digital backdrop. Samsung’s presence at the event was more than ubiquitous, as they had given out tickets to people who had taken the new Galaxy to a number of hot spots around Austin and used its TecTile touch technology to check in. It was the only time I felt like I was in the minority with my iPhone. After an hour delay, Tribe came on and did an energetic three-man weave of all of their hits, bounding around the stage, riling the audience up and sweating profusely. There were several towel-off breaks. Several celebrities of various stature were in attendance, and during Tribe’s performance Omar from The Wire was tripping from his spot to the side of the stage, singing, dancing and smiling along to every song.

The Prince Experience began only 20 minutes or so after Tribe ended and from the beginning it was clear that this wasn’t going to function like a normal rock show. Of course it wasn’t. With all 22 members of his New Power Generation band in place, a tall, gorgeous woman who would serve as Prince’s dancing muse throughout the night strutted on stage wearing a masquerade mask and and some type of pink and gold brigadeer’s coat. She carried a diamond-encrusted walking cane and handed it over to Prince as he appeared for the first time. He wore heels, a red blouse with a six or seven-inch collar and some sort of chain mail breastplate necklace. After playing “1999” the dancing muse returned to fire confetti canons into the audience.


Aside from “1999,” Prince played “Musicology,” “Purple Rain” and “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute),” but not many other original songs. Instead, he opted fort a number of covers, such as Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” (during the first encore), Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re A Winner” (during the second encore) and The Time’s “Jungle Love” (somewhere in there). Everything was jammed out into extended versions with the 22-person band, which included an 11-man horn section. Throughout the night, Prince would walk around the stage summoning different musicians to reel off solos. “Show me what you got! Uhh!” If he liked what he heard (he always did), his face would wrinkle into a “now that’s just filthy!” look, like he had smelled something awful. It was a free form funky odyssey for the ages and remember: 22-person band, 11 horns, intimate venue.


But the “now that’s just filthy!” look was only one small example of the looks, the smiles, the dance moves, the mannerisms, the wardrobe, the one liners (some of which I’ve highlighted in bold) and the overall magic of Prince’s stage presence. He couldn’t have been more comfortable and confident, and absolutely everything he did—from wiping his mouth off to transferring the mic from one hand to the other—was done with done with an artful, distinctly Prince-ian flourish. He is not human. He is Prince.

He flawlessly executed 720-degree spins, got on his knees James Brown-style, glided from one side of the stage to the other before you could turn your head and punctuated his movements with a sexy arsenal of “oohs,” “uhhs,” “ows” and “uhhuhs.” During “Purple Rain” he basically spent five minutes whimpering into the mic and the band didn’t miss a beat behind him. He’s also the only person I’ve ever known to use “boom shakalaka” un-ironically.


At a cetain point the audience began to throw any logical expectations of how or when the show could end out the window, and this new sense that absolutely anything could happen made us want anything to happen, whatever that anything might be. The show could last until 6 a.m., maybe, or Prince could decide to lead us on a parade down 4th Street. Nothing would have surprised us because Prince is an alien. He constantly taunted us and challenged us to keep riding with him, and no one wasn’t going to oblige him. Even after the fourth and fifth encores the applause was deafening. As I’m writing this it’s almost noon the next morning and my ears are still ringing and it’s because of the crowd noise just as much as the music. During what turned out to be his last song, Prince stood over by the side of the stage and someone must have told him he had 20 minutes left. “20 minutes!” he repeated into the mic in disbelief. It was 3 a.m. and he had been on for almost three hours.


For the fifth encore, Prince came out wearing one of his horn player’s costume lion hat (oh, yeah: all of the horn players were wearing different animal costume hats) and an overlarge pair of orange tinted sunglasses. He still had on the velvet smock/sleeveless straightjacket he had changed into a few encores before. I’m not sure what they played, but it was a driving, funky jam. People were clapping. Horns were blasting. Lights were flashing. The audience was livelier than it had been all night. Everyone had become delirious over the impossibility of the moment. That Prince was still playing. That it was actually still happening. Everyone wanted the dream to continue.

The song ended and all 22 members of the band came out to line the edge of the stage and bow. This meant nothing as far the possibility of the show ending. He’d already said goodbye so many times in so many different ways, including a few mic drops. Why should we believe him this time? Then a foreign voice came on the PA and asked us to applaud one more time. We still waited and then the house lights came on and people began to turn their backs on the stage. Many stood still trying to process that it had ended, and then they too eventually turned their backs. It was over.


As we all spilled out of the venue we couldn’t help but turn and talk to whomever was standing or walking next to us. Everyone at La Zona Rosa had just experienced something special together and we all knew it. That something was the fully realized essence of what live music is all about, of what we are searching for when we go from venue to venue. It’s an elusive sensation and usually it only comes in small doses. Prince gave us the whole thing, though, and everybody that made their way down Fourth Street early Sunday morning was buzzing with appreciation. There couldn’t have been a more fitting end to what was an incredible week in Austin. God bless Prince. God bless SXSW.

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