As news of Prince’s death is sending shock waves through social media Thursday, we’re looking back at his last performance in Austin on March 16, 2013, during South by Southwest. Here was our review by Patrick Caldwell.Also: photos of the show by the American-Statesman’s Jay Janner
Only a few minutes into what would turn out to be a marathon, nearly-three-hour performance at La Zona Rosa on Saturday night, the artist once again known as Prince perched at the edge of the stage and made a simple pronouncement: “School’s in, y’all.”
He wasn’t kidding. Prince’s Samsung-sponsored closing night South by Southwest performance found his purple preeminence in full-on professorial mode, gallantly leading the latest incarnation of the New Power Generation and a small but rapturous crowd through a bounding expedition through his back catalogue, blasting through deep cuts, covers and tributes, hits from other artists in the Prince galaxy, and some of his own most memorable pop smashes. Think of it as a master class in funk; a no-holds-barred celebration that will almost certainly go down in SXSW history as one of the festival’s most stratospheric successes.
On paper, it sounds almost inconceivable: one of pop music’s most iconic and spectacularly successful personalities playing to roughly 1,000 people. As recently as 10 days ago, before word started to trickle out, the notion of Prince galloping through Austin for SXSW wasn’t meaningful even as a harebrained rumor. So when the man himself appeared on stage at long last, following a brilliant opening set from A Tribe Called Quest, there were palpable waves of cognitive dissonance sweeping through the crowd — “Is that really Prince, and are we really here?”
The answer to both questions was an unqualified “yes.” Prince emerged on stage at La Zona Rosa shortly after midnight, clad in a shimmering indigo dress shirt and a blazer, backed by the expansive and expert New Power Generation and a brilliant light display. (La Zona Rosa itself was rather dramatically rehabilitated for this particular show, with the stage moved entirely to the north wall, adding a further dose of unreality to the proceedings for those already familiar with the venue).
Prince, though nominally 54, is a very particular kind of ageless, and the agile, enthused, pitch-perfect performer that walloped the crowd Saturday night appeared every bit as vibrant and vital as he did nearly 30 years ago, hassling Apallonia and commanding the First Avenue in “Purple Rain.” His vocal exhortations were as piercingly high and as spirited as they’ve ever been, his energy blinding even in the wee hours of the morning, and his feet every bit as animated. A certifiable dancing machine, Prince was never in one space for tremendously long, and may well have walked the equivalent of several miles on stage, simply from his constant sashaying.
The evening was relatively light on big hits — a crackling “1999” early in the set being probably the most euphoric, as streams and confetti blasted from the ceiling and drummer John Blackwell dived into an explosive solo. “Sign ‘O’ the Times” second disc opener “U Got the Look,” boasting a superlative saxophone solo, was another major Prince single to make an appearance.
But while Prince has a ludicrously deep bench of potential hits for live performances — “Kiss,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Rasberry Beret,” this could go on for a while — he largely veered away from those in his three hours at La Zona Rosa. Instead, there were deep cuts a-plenty: a thumping and glorious rendition of “U Got the Look” b-side “Housequake,” a lovely and nearly a capella take on “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” that found Prince alone at the keys, and “Shhh,” a slow jam off 1995’s “The Gold Experience” written by Prince but first released by Tevin Campbell.
In fact, there were quite a few appearances by songs written by Prince but popularized by other artists; he eagerly tackled multiple Morris Day and the Time songs, including “Jungle Love” and “Cool,” as well as “The Glamorous Life,” popularized by Sheila E. Prince also took time to pay tribute to other soul and funk musicians, performing Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “We’re a Winner,” playing bits and pieces of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” and even diving into James Brown’s “I Don’t Want No One To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself).”
Prince wasn’t only generous to other artists with his song selections; he was also exceedingly generous to his very capable band. If it weren’t already clear, the night’s performance ably demonstrated that Prince has evolved well past being a mere front man; now he’s an enormously capable bandleader. The sprawling current incarnation of the New Power Generation, more than twenty players strong, and in particular its horn section, were given plenty of time to do their own thing throughout the show, with long instrumental jams and winding solos. To call the New Power Generation “tight” doesn’t quite do them justice. With Prince stepping back at multiple times throughout the night to dance, or to duck backstage for a costume change, the New Power Generation were responsible for carrying much of the show, and with so many virtuosic horn players, guitarists, singers, and more, they managed it seemingly effortlessly.
Speaking of long instrumental jams, those tended to come after each the show’s staggering half-dozen or so encores — though perhaps calling them “encores,” would be a stretch. More like “breaks.” Still, though, Prince’s set had more false endings than the film adaptation of “The Return of the King,” with the first coming around an hour into the show, after a spellbinding performance of “Purple Rain.”
In fact, there was at that point still more than an hour and a half left in the set, and as the evening wore on Prince continued to joke about his longevity. (“The after-party’s starting right now!” “They say we got 20 more minutes. Think we can make it the best 20 minutes of your life?”)
Not everybody in the crowd at La Zona Rosa was able to endure a set that long, but the crowd that remained as the clock approached 3 a.m. seemed dazed, tired, and fantastically giddy. Even after the show finally closed up, after Prince and the band mashed up the Jackson 5’s “Dancing Machine” with “Partyman,” off the soundtrack to 1989’s “Batman,” (yes, the last song Prince played was “Partyman”) many still remained near the front of the stage, chanting for one more.
“Is that enough?” Prince had queried the crowd a few songs before, after yet another false encore.
The answer was no. It’s never enough. But it was sensational all the same.