Prince Lights Up SXSW With Epic, Improvised Set

Prince at South By Southwest
John Sciulli, Getty Images for Samsung

This was no recitation of greatest hits -- or even of Prince's own material – but rather an exercise in organic, improvisational music-making. "Austin, don't let me hurt you"

The ground shaking around South By Southwest on Saturday night (well, technically Sunday morning) was nothing to be alarmed about.

But it was a genuine Housequake, a stomping two hours and 35 minutes of rock, funk and occasionally jazz jamming by Prince and his super-sized, 22-member New Power Generation band at La Zona Rosa, a Samsung Galaxy-sponsored event that was arguably the hottest ticket of the conference -- with some hopeful fans even lining up outside the club as early as Friday morning.

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Prince and company delivered on the hype, performing on a specially built stage (including a massive LED wall behind the band)  and absolutely slamming through a tightly played epic of a show that delivered surprises with nearly every note. This was no recitation of greatest hits -- or even of Prince's own material – but rather an exercise in organic, improvisational music-making and ensemble dynamics that Prince guided like a conductor steering an orchestra through an intricate symphony, even eschewing the guitar to focus on the task of bandleader, occasionally adding keyboard accents to a handful of songs. Structures were altered and even abandoned, making room for solos by each of the NPG members and showy vamps and instrumental breakdowns.

As the man told the ebullient crowd at the club, in a made-for-SXSW testimonial, "I love being a musician. It feels like being a servant -- a servant to you."

Those in attendance -- including My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Mayer Hawthorne, Talib Kweli and "The Wire" actors Michael K. Williams and Felicia Pearson -- certainly felt well-served, even if Prince delivered just a smattering of his own songs. "1999" blasted forth early in the show, amidst some selections from 2004's "Musicology," including the title track. "Purple Rain" was also played during the main set, with Prince substituting a stirring set of vocal vamping in lieu of the song's guitar solo. He may have warned, "Austin, don't let me hurt you. You know how many hits I got?," but Prince left the vast majority of those on the bench and, when touching on his originals, dug deep for material such as "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)."

Instead the indefatigable performer, who sported several different outfits during the show, populated the "after-party" encores with covers, some focused on his contributions to other artists while also ripping through some surprising covers. Prince nodded to his forebears and heroes with versions of Curtis Mayfield's "We're a Winner," Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," James Brown's "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself) ( Part 1)" and Rose Royce's "Which Way Is Up,"  and he paid homage to some peers with a set of Jackson family favorites -- Michael's "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," Janet's "What Have You Done For Me Lately" and the Jackson 5's "Dancing Machine," during which he brought several fans onstage to join the "purple party." Prince the composer, meanwhile, visited The Time's "Cool," "The Bird" and "Jungle Love," Sheila E's "The Glamorous Life" and Sheena Easton's "U Got the Look."

It was exhausting, if not exhaustive, but it was clear that even at 3 a.m. the La Zona Rosa crowd would have been happy to stick around for a few more….dozen…encores. "What a night, huh?" Prince asked at one point. No kidding…