Prince is onstage wearing a spirit animal hat—fox, for the completists—and sunglasses tearing into Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done for Me Lately" at the 400-capacity Austin club La Zona Rosa. Had we been allowed to take pictures, that shot would've been the whole review right there; the perfect signifier for a freewheeling, playful set leaning hard on extended instrumental funk jams.
Prince is all over our photo gallery from SXSW's closing day
But let's go back two-and-a-half hours, with The Purple One entering the stage with a high-collared pink shirt and suit straight out of The Mack to close out South by Southwest. He waves around a bejeweled scepter because he is Prince and of course there's a scepter. Just like of course all 12 horn players of his 22-piece band are wearing those spirit animal hats (well, technically 11, with one dude rocking the Bonnaroo-ready hippie hat and apparently not getting the band notes). He will probably be talked to later.
Prince's world has no analogies or exaggerations; it lives within itself, transcending rational thought. If you think I'm full of sh-t, imagine your dad saying, and I'm quoting Prince here, "A lot of people got horns, but they usually leave them on their cars." Tonight, Prince will somehow make this sound cool.
Prince's world has no analogies or exaggerations; it lives within itself, transcending rational thought.
We are told that "there will be no cell phone photography" and "violators will be removed immediately." This seems ironic, given that the show is sponsored by Samsung Galaxy, but most people dutifully oblige, partly out of respect for Prince's hatred of cameras at shows and partly that getting thrown out of a Prince show after waiting on line for five hours just isn't worth the risk.
Prince: The Myth—the mercurial weirdo who said the Internet was "completely over" and went door-to-door in Minneapolis to preach Jehovah's Witness—is nowhere to be seen. Tonight's Prince can't stop smiling, acting as much bandleader as singer. He doesn't pick up a guitar all night, but did give nearly every band member their own solo.
There are a few ballads—"Purple Rain," of course, alongside "Shhh" from 1995's The Gold Experience—but Prince and his band focused on extended, ten-minute-plus funk jams and covers of Michael Jackson ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"), Curtis Mayfield ("We're a Winner") and Aretha Franklin ("I Never Loved a Man [The Way I Love You]"), among others. "Purple Rain" is also where the show "officially" ended, though with six encores, the first set took up less than half the total running time.
Relatively deep cuts melded with ubiquitous tracks. "1999," as it will be forever, was a crowd highlight, augmented with confetti blasts showering down on the audience, while slightly lesser-known tracks like 1999's "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)" and the Time's "Cool" both earned huge applause.
"They called our people and said they wanted some funk in Austin," explained Prince about why he was down there. This is almost certainly not how it was said, though still amazing to think that. "I love being a musician. It feels like a servant…A servant. To you." This syntax looks odd until you reread it in Prince's voice and it makes perfect sense.
Everything the singer says tonight past platitudes and commands is some weird, awkward quotable. When the wedding DJ yells, "Ain't no party like a purple party 'cause a purple party don't stop," you roll your eyes. When Prince does it, it works. Add this to the list of Mysteries of the Universe.
Midway through one jam, I start to wonder if he makes up these lines on the fly or if the green room has a sheet of paper with a list of one-liners to feed the crowd. When Prince tells the crowd towards the end of the set, "You've heard of five-hour energy. My middle name is 11-hour energy," with the confidence of Eminem in that last 8 Mile battle, you understand that you're in the presence of singular greatness.
Maybe it was a ploy, but the singer seemed genuinely upset when told, after two-and-a-half hours, that he only had 20 minutes left. "We have 20 more minutes," says the singer. "Think we can make them the best 20 minutes of our lives?" Yes, Prince. Yes we can. At one point, he handed the mic to a well-intentioned, if overzealous, crowd member ("You scare me," he told her, smiling), while later, he brought two women onstage to dance. (This appeared to be a headliner theme this week.) This is assuredly the best 20 minutes of their lives.
A Tribe Called Quest opened the show, featuring a jovial Q-Tip cracking jokes throughout the 45-minute set. "They called us at the last minute," said Tip. "I was chipping golf balls." The band culled primarily from 1991's The Low End Theory and 1993's Midnight Marauders, displaying a convivial group dynamic missing in past reunion shows. Tip even addressed the band's past friction, as documented in Michael Rappoport's Beats, Rhymes & Life. "Let's quit again for the third time," he joked, to the laughter of members Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
But even the iconic rap group knew why the people were there. When Q-Tip threw a towel down on the stage and started wiping it with his foot, the other members asked him what he was doing. Said the rapper: "I'm cleaning up the stage for Prince."
Watch Prince + A Tribe Called Quest at SXSW