Tribute concerts are a tricky proposition under the best of circumstances. Not only do you need to match the right performer with the right song, you've got to learn an entire repertoire – which, if the tributee deserves an entire concert, is usually challenging on many levels -- in a short time, and somehow find a way to strike that delicate balance between paying homage and being overly reverent; and/or between reinventing and ravaging.
However, when you've got a Prince tribute with Questlove at the helm -- not only the heartbeat of the Roots (the evening's house band) and musical director of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," but a masterful musician, a world-class networker AND a longtime Prince fanatic who has performed with the man himself – you're in good hands. And it showed at tonight's concert, the ninth in presenter Michael Dorf's annual series, which not only provided a strikingly high percentage of quality performances, it also raised more than $100,000 for several non-profit music-education programs for underprivileged youth.
If the Sound City Players are Dave Grohl's Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, then tonight's concert was Questlove's, because the evening's biggest musical surprise came at the beginning, when a short-haired female guitarist walked onstage with the Roots: Wendy Melvoin – a.k.a. half of the Revolution's Lisa & Wendy – who was soon joined by Prince's longtime saxophonist Eric Leeds. At long last, Quest – who wore a t-shirt bearing the first names of the Revolution's classic lineup – was almost in the band he'd always wanted to be in.
The evening started off with a bang, as singer/guitarist Mike Scott and violinist Steve Wickham tore into a blazing version of "Purple Rain" that saw Wickham flawlessly rendering Prince's guitar solo on the violin. From there, the show moved into a template that varied surprisingly smoothly between funk, ballads and comedy.
Fred Armisen did a hilariously nerdy spoken-word version of the intro to "Let's Go Crazy"; later; Chris Rock hollered comically through the odd middle section of "If I Was Your Girlfriend" (clearly reading from a teleprompter, he probably had no idea where the words came from – as his shrug to Questlove as he walked offstage suggested); an extremely pregnant Maya Rudolph sang several songs with Gretchen Lieberum (her college friend and partner in Prince tribute act Princess) and gave the evening a surreal touch by bumping, grinding and screaming through "Darling Nikki" while she stroked her big belly; Sandra Bernhardt broke out a hilarious automotive-themed spoken-word intro to "Little Red Corvette" (which she sang like a dramatic reading) that referenced "the little man who chooses to sit alone, naked, under the cherry moon."
Those moments were balanced by ballads: Nina Persson of the Cardigans showed impressive range on a beautiful "Nothing Compares 2U"; Bhi Bhiman accompanied himself on guitar for a sparse and slow version of "When Doves Cry" that may not have tickled everyone's fancy but was certainly bold; Citizen Cope and Alice Smith delivered a halting "Pop Life"; and best of all, Kat Edmonson sang a gorgeous and strikingly original take on "The Beautiful Ones" accompanied by a talented pianist, that saw her singing the first verse low, the second high, and belting briefly at the end (many "Who was THAT?"s were heard from the crowd after she performed).
Even other genres were worked in: The Blind Boys of Alabama brought church harmony to a rousing version of "The Cross"; Devotchka did an impressively reverent "Mountains" that included violin and a full horn section (including tuba); and the inclusion of a children's chorus on Diane Birch's take of "Raspberry Beret" was an inspired touch.
But of course, the funk was what brought the crowd out of their seats. Fdeluxe (a reunited version of mid-'80s Prince protégés the Family, featuring Wendy's twin sister Susannah) tore through "High Fashion" and "Mutiny" and backed Persson for "Nothing Compares" (which they originally recorded); Talib Kweli funked up "Annie Christian" and made it topical by name-dropping Tupac and Biggie before shouting "gun control!"; Bettye Lavette tore up "Kiss" with an old-school bluesy treatment; Bilal – the only repeat performer from the "1999" tribute show that the Roots played at Brooklyn's BAM in 1999 – showed his true calling as a top-shelf Prince impersonator, alternately singing and screeching "Sister" as the tempo shifted between fast and slow.
And noted crate-digger Elvis Costello performed the most obscure song of the night (probably the result of a deep-cut geekout with Questlove), the unreleased mid-'80s song "Moonbeam Levels," which is usually called "A Better Place 2 Die" on bootlegs.
But as great as many of those performances were, there's no question that D'Angelo stole the show – which is hardly surprising, considering that Prince is the cornerstone of his musical being. Displaying the full measure of his spectacular showmanship -- which was so low-key at his own show in Brooklyn on Monday night -- D'Angelo stomped from one end of the stage to the other, doing the James Brown mic-stand drop, kicking over the piano stool, leading the crowd in sing-alongs and arm-waving, and dropping in lots of sly little moves and ad-libs that showed him to be Questlove's equal in Prince scholarship. The band tore through all of "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" before seamlessly shifting into "1999," which saw them joined by every single one of the night's performers as D'Angelo had the entire crowd shouting "PARTY!"
The last notes had barely faded and the musicians were still onstage when the house lights came up -- and it was a good thing, too, because that last performance was so explosive that absolutely no one wanted to leave.