Prince was a singular talent whose influence has touched pretty much every conceivable genre of music. So it’s only fitting that the task of paying tribute to his life and work be taken on by a similarly diverse group of musicians. Foo Fighters, Beck, John Legend and Mavis Staples were all among the stellar list of artists gathered together by the Grammys and musical director Sheila E to perform at ‘Let’s Go Crazy: A Grammys Salute To Prince’, a TV special recorded on Tuesday night and set to hit screens in April around the fourth anniversary of the Purple one’s death.
Our host for the evening was Maya Rudolph, who opened the show with a hard-to-beat brag: she was in the room at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 for the George Harrison tribute performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, when Prince delivered that ridiculous solo and effortlessly blew the likes of Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne off the stage. Starting the night with that reference set a high bar: would anyone attempt something equally audacious as a tribute to Prince himself?
Both H.E.R. and Gary Clark Jnr seemed likely candidates as they traded wild guitar solos on boisterous opening song ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, but neither of them tried anything as bonkers as playing leaning back over the audience or magically making their guitar disappear into thin air when they were done.
Then John Legend appeared, shirtless under a blazer, announcing: “Prince was incomparable in every way,” to neatly set up the pun he used to introduce his contribution. “Nothing compares to Prince,” he noted, before breaking out all his best dance moves and rock poses for an enjoyable cover of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’.
But not everything worked. Juanes has won more Latin Grammys than you could fit on your nan’s sideboard, but his ‘1999’ lacked lustre. He immediately attempted it again, with the blame laid on “technical difficulties”. After him, Common rapping over ‘Sign O’ The Times’ proved little other than that ‘Sign O’ The Times’ doesn’t need a rap interlude.
By contrast, you sense that Prince would have thoroughly enjoyed the sight of H.E.R. playing ‘The Beautiful Ones’ while sat at a sleek, futuristic piano before leaping up to stride down the stage’s central runway, pursued by a ballerina.
Many of the performers took the opportunity to tell their Prince stories. Before Foo Fighters played, Dave Grohl took the opportunity to admit that while Prince didn’t think much of his band covering ‘Darling Nikki’ for a B-side back in 2003, they couldn’t have been more flattered when Prince covered ‘Best of You’ during what Grohl called: “the greatest halftime show of all time.” Later, Grohl revealed, he found himself: “Jamming alone with Prince in an arena to ‘Whole Lotta Love’. The single greatest thrill of my pop life.” That teed up Foos version of ‘Pop Life’, but the real fun came when Sheila E implored the band to also play “that other song”. Their heavy-hitting version of ‘Darling Nikki’ was one of the highlights of the night, the band simultaneously making the song their own while also bringing to the fore Prince’s own hard rocking inclinations.
The Time got the crowd moving with their hits ‘Jungle Love’, ‘Cool’ and ‘The Bird’, before Beck – wearing a ruffled shirt and strumming an acoustic guitar – had a lot of fun with ‘Raspberry Beret’. Earth, Wind and Fire’s version of ‘Adore’ was truly special, while St Vincent declined to be too showy with her guitar playing on ‘Controversy’. That left Gary Clark Jnr free to play the night’s best improvised guitar solo, on a version of ‘The Cross’ that started slow and emotional before building to a venue-melting crescendo.
Usher had been billed to appear, but in the end we just got canned footage of his Grammys medley of ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Kiss’ (which had itself received mixed reviews.) That meant Miguel had no real competition as the show’s best dancer, and he pulled off an intense version of ‘I Would Die 4 U’.
Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles turning ‘Manic Monday’ into a maudlin piano ballad is… less successful. Under-rehearsed and blighted further by the sound of fabric rubbing against one of the microphones; it’s genuinely surprising that they don’t even attempt to repeat it, perhaps deciding to quit while they’re behind.
Sheila E and her drums take centre stage for a powerful version of ‘America’, before a surprise treat: it turns out Maya Rudolph and her friend Gretchen Lieberum have their own Prince cover band (called Princess, naturally) and their version of ‘Delirious’ – backed by the actual Revolution – is brilliant fun, made all the better by the fact it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
They leave The Revolution to perform ‘Mountains’ by which point, three and a half hours into the show, the room is starting to thin out. More fool them, because the biggest treat of the night is still to come: Mavis Staples (owner of one of Prince’s favourite voices) doing ‘Purple Rain’. Combined with Wendy Melvoin’s staggering solo, it makes the whole thing worthwhile.
There were more hits than misses, but in the end the show was more respectful than incendiary. Nobody pulled off anything near like what happened during ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ sixteen years ago. A reminder, if it was necessary, that there’ll never be anyone else quite like Prince.