It’s just after 8pm in West Kensington and an expectant line of fans, some with purple hair and symbols round their necks, queue round the block waiting to get into Nell’s Jazz and Blues.
The words “Welcome 2 the New Power Generation” were first uttered by Prince on his 1988 Lovesexy album as part of a concept based around an elevated and spiritual state of mind. By 1990 ‘New Power Generation’ (and the song gets a rare airing in the show) was on his Graffiti Bridge album, before several of his seminal bands were given the name, kicking off with the Diamonds & Pearls vintage.
As we snake round the block we bump into keyboardist Tommy Elm (renamed Tommy Barbarella in the NPG) and singer Kip Blackshire, who are discussing the earlier sound-check and last night’s mega-gig at Hyde Park. Once inside it’s quickly apparent that it’s going to be a hot night, in more ways than one, with the bar doing great business. Sharing singing duties on the night is Andre Cymone, Prince’s high school buddy, bass player in his early groups and now re-launching a solo career of his own. The band are happily mingling with the crowd of fans for photos and conversation beforehand which sets the informal, party feel of the night – celebrating Prince is what everyone is here to do.
When the band take to the stage they do so to loud samples of Prince’s music – digital snippets of For You, 1999 and Let’s Go Crazy come pounding out of the PA. Unexpectedly, and to the delight of the crowd, this 8 piece all male ensemble tear into 1993s X-rated classic Sexy MF as an opener, with roars of “u sexy mother-f—–!” loudly filling the air. It’s a great ice-breaker, as it’s the type of overtly lascivious and sensationalist tune Prince had dropped later in his career, but really sets the tone for the rest of the night.
It’s also really tight musically, helped by the fact that Prince’s childhood musical idol Sonny Thompson, from his hometown of Minneapolis, is on bass. It’s also unashamedly a funk show – which dabbles once or twice with rock, soulful ballads and hip-hop (with Tony Mosely leading on rap duties). The line-up is completed with musical director and long-time Prince keyboardist Morris Hayes on keys (stage left to Barbarella’s stage right), Mike Scott on electric guitar, Kirk Johnson (still with Prince in the last few days before his passing) on drums, and Damon Dickson on vocals (who along with Johnson and Mosely first joined Prince’s band in 1990 for the Nude Tour).
The show rattles along with some stellar work-outs on tracks such as Hot Thing, Housequake and a crackling Sign O The Times, which are all highlights, but it also encapsulates lesser known material, much to the delight of the Purple faithful. We get to hear album cuts from Diamonds & Pearls such as Jughead and Live 4 Love, but also b-sides such as She’s Always in My Hair and Call The Law. It’s a nice touch as you get the feeling some of these tracks would never have been played live again, but it’s also a moment for the band to both celebrate their diminutive Purple master, but also to briefly step out of his shadow.
The set list is full of brave choices, there’s no When Doves Cry, but they pack a lot in to the two hour set medley-style with chock-loads of crowd-pleasers such as 1999, an updated Little Red Corvette, 7, but also some old school cuts like Uptown and Controversy. Nothing Compares 2 U is possibly the most poignant moment of the show as band members point to the sky in memory of their bandleader, while Purple Rain elicits the expected sing-along.
If there’s one criticism it was that the mix of sound needed more vocal power across the board, but you get the feeling neither the group nor the sound engineers in the venue had quite enough time to get that right. However, it’s a case of ‘every cloud’ because the crowd don’t seem to care overly – as singer Kip Blackshire extends his mic out into the crowd for yet another sing-a-long, it’s clear that Nothing Compares to Prince.