What does it mean if the best part of a tribute concert is the part the late honoree would have hated?
On Tuesday night at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the Recording Academy presented “Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince,” the latest in a series of productions put on by the academy in recent years in the days following its annual Grammy Awards ceremony.
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Like earlier tributes to the likes of Aretha Franklin and the Bee Gees, this one — which was taped for broadcast on CBS and featured John Legend, Foo Fighters, Mavis Staples, H.E.R., Beck, Gary Clark Jr. and Prince’s old collaborators Sheila E. and the Revolution, among others — concluded inevitably with an all-star jam, in this case on the ebullient “Baby I’m a Star,” from “Purple Rain.”
Only here the finale was unusually chaotic, with Dave Grohl thwacking away at a pair of congas and Miguel taking over lead vocals in what looked like a surprise to Sheila E. Fred Armisen was up there for some reason wandering around with a tambourine. And when Sheila E. attempted to knee-slide down a long runway shaped like Prince’s signature glyph, the percussionist came down hard enough that you could hear it over the music.
In truth, the number was kind of a mess. Yet after nearly four hours of hit-or-miss performances — separated by lengthy delays as the headset-wearing technicians did their thing — you appreciated the surge of energy, which communicated something of the intensity of being a fan.
Of course, Prince himself never had to choose between vigor and precision; this lifelong perfectionist would likely have rolled his eyes at such a sloppy display of affection. But that’s the conundrum built into an event like Tuesday’s: Should it say more about a legend and his work or about our relationship with them? (If you’re wondering, by the way, why now for a Prince tribute, the special’s executive producer, Ken Ehrlich — who just wrapped up his four-decade run at the helm of the Grammys — pointed out onstage that CBS plans to air “Let’s Go Crazy” on April 21, four years to the day since Prince died of a fentanyl overdose at age 57.)
Certainly, no one who performed here threatened to unsettle the way we think about Prince, not least because we kept being reminded of his genius as the TV people played clips of his classic performances (including the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI) to keep us amused during those delays.
Backed by an expert live band under the musical direction of Sheila E., Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Legend chewed through “Nothing Compares 2 U” with a florid romanticism that only emphasized how understated Prince could be; St. Vincent’s take on “Controversy” simply demonstrated the durability of his ideas about rhythm and propulsion.
Sheila E. did “The Glamorous Life” and the Time did “Jungle Love” — two testaments to Prince’s prolificacy — as they’ve been doing them for ages, while the Revolution hauled out “Mountains,” a welcome deep cut from “Under the Cherry Moon” that made the same point about Prince’s insanely huge catalog. (Four hours and nobody did “Blue Light” or “Baltimore” or “Gotta Broken Heart Again”!)
But occasionally you got a strong sense of how Prince had affected an admirer, as in H.E.R.’s rendition of “The Beautiful Ones,” which felt like a personal essay on the slow burn, and a shockingly funky “Pop Life” by Foo Fighters, who’ve clearly been concealing what they learned. Coldplay’s Chris Martin didn’t sound great doing “Manic Monday” (another of Prince’s freelance joints) with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles; this was not a vocal blend to be proud of. But again you felt Prince’s influence in Martin’s eagerness to find his way into a song so thoroughly associated with women.
In Staples and Earth, Wind & Fire, the show had two veterans who’d been for Prince what Prince was for the rest of the acts on the bill. Staples’ “Purple Rain” had a stateliness that made the song sound like it had been written for her. And EWF’s take on the sensual “Adore,” with Philip Bailey singing almost exclusively in falsetto, was just gorgeous — an intimate exercise unconcerned with impressing anybody in the room.
It would’ve knocked Prince out.