Omar Apollo live at Paisley Park: socially distanced joy to make Prince proud

The Mexican-American rising star kicked off a new series of Covid-safe shows at the Purple One's estate

If Omar Apollo had a dollar for every time he’d been compared to Prince over the last few years, he’d be well on his way to being able to afford to buy the Purple One’s Paisley Park home. His latest release ‘Apolonio’ was inspired by ‘Purple Rain’ and, like the late icon, the Mexican-American rising star isn’t afraid to play around – be that through his music or his refusal to conform to gender stereotypes (“If I want to wear a skirt, I wear a skirt,” he told the LA Times recently).

It makes sense, then, that Apollo would be at the top of the list to perform as part of a new series of socially distanced shows at Paisley Park in Minnesota. Last week (October 27), 100 people sat six feet apart at little tables in what is usually a 1500-capacity room to watch Apollo play his first gig in seven months. A couple days later, North America got to witness the performance as part of a livestream event.

Since the Coronavirus pandemic whisked musicians off the road earlier this year, concerts have been forced to change and adapt. More emphasis is now being placed on production – the more innovative the better – with a desire to stand out among other virtual offerings. After months of watching artists perform in digital worlds made possible by XR technology, Apollo’s offering feels like it’s from another time. If it wasn’t for the face masks worn by audience members, you could almost be convinced you were watching a concert film from a time when COVID-19 just sounded like something from a sci-fi story.

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There’s no flashy technology involved: just a performer joyfully slinking through his already stellar back catalogue, clearly relishing being back on stage. Wearing a crushed velvet purple suit, the 23-year-old has one request for the small crowd joining him: “I know this is COVID-safe, but y’all better be loud as fuck.” If their cheers are being muffled by their masks, it’s hard to tell.

Omar Apollo
Credit: Nate Guenther

As well as the location of tonight’s performance, this gig is also notable for being the live debut of ‘Apolonio’. The set opens with the sunny ‘I’m Amazing’, which sees Apollo ask “where my Mexicans at?” before switching from English to Spanish midway through. Before ‘Want U Around’, the stage goes dark and Prince’s iconic logo lights up above it. The track that follows is a piece of slow and supremely Prince-y yearning funk that makes it seem like Apollo has sent up a purple version of the Bat-Signal. He moves to a platform behind the drum riser to deliver the song, leaving the big chunk of stage he prowls along for much of the rest of the set free in case any legendary musical spirits do show up.

Apollo isn’t a pastiche of his hero, though, and there are plenty of moments throughout the set that showcase his own unique charms and qualities. On ‘Dos Uno Never (219)’, he mixes some “Mexican shit”, as he eloquently puts it, into proceedings. His and Oscar Santander’s dramatic guitar melodies weave around one other, urgently driving his take on a Mexican corrido. Later, the one-two of ‘Useless’ and ‘Bi Fren’ demonstrates how he’s able to master modern sounds of rushing indie rock and atmospheric hip-hop just as well as timeless funk and soul.

Some older treats are scattered through the set, too. The strutting ‘Ashamed’ is accompanied by Apollo high-kicking, spinning and swaggering around the stage, before he nonchalantly straps on a guitar and noodles out a sublime solo. The bass-y groove of ‘Kickback’ seamlessly segues into a cover of Prince’s 1979 track ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, before 2018’s ‘Ignorin’’ elicits a big reaction when Apollo asks the audience if they like to dance as he shows off his own hip-swivelling moves. Yes please.

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It’s refreshing to witness a show like this in late 2020 – a warm reminder of our old gig-going lives – even if it doesn’t quite live up to its pre-show billing as a “one-of-a-kind livestream” that incorporates documentary-style footage. In reality, those clips only appear for a few minutes before the concert begins, showing glimpses of Apollo and his band rehearsing and touring the Paisley Park residence. It would have been interesting to see more, particularly given the significance of Prince to Apollo’s music and the unusual nature of putting on a gig in these times (Apollo himself has said he was initially uncomfortable with the idea of doing a show).

Limited behind-the-scenes insight aside, Apollo’s performance at Paisley Park is still a thrill to watch. As ‘Hijo De Su Madre’ brings things to a close, the artist’s howling, kicking energy is matched by a sudden explosion of confetti blanketing the venue. For a second it almost feels like the little white fragments are about to float out of your screen and cover your room, too.

While only 100 people were allowed in to witness this show, its accompanying livestream at least kept alive the hope for the rest of us that one day we too will be able to experience the exuberant joy of an Omar Apollo gig in person again.

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