If you never had the chance to see Prince live, then frankly, it sucks to be you. That said 4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince came through Lynn Memorial Auditorium, just outside of Boston, and it was an excellent opportunity to experience The Purple One’s back catalogue in in a way that paid homage to the late icon while giving the material a fresh approach.
Since leading the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon while remixing Hamilton isn’t enough to keep ?uestlove busy, he curated the process of selecting material by Prince and putting together arrangements for the songs to be performed live by a symphony over two dozen players deep. ?uestlove wasn’t at the performance but before the start of the show, a prerecorded introduction allowed him to give the audience a bit of a rundown on the project as well as an idea as to what to expect. The first set was going to be focusing on some more obscure elements of Prince’s discography while the second set would be all about the hits.
That first set of deep cuts featured classics like “Controversy,” “1999,” and “Computer Blue” which really speaks to the amount of hits The Purple One amassed over his multi-decade run. The highlight of the first set was their take on the Purple Rain staple, “The Beautiful Ones.” The emotionally charged climax of the song beautifully lent itself to orchestral arrangements and its masterful execution had audience members feeling for the first time like a song they’ve heard hundreds of times was meant to be performed by a complete symphony.
The lead violinist completely stole the show with a powerful stage presence that got a seated audience on their feet and moving. The sole guitarist got the job done but felt invisible at times and while technically proficient, showcased a synthetic Line 6 tone that was more Top Gun Cheese than Dance Music Sex Romance. The guitarist was playing a PRS guitar (think Santana) with a whammy bar equipped for vibrato which was perfectly appropriate but interestingly enough, said more about Prince than the tribute. Everyone from Chic’s Nile Rogers and Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen used whammy bars but for all his virtuosic tendencies, Prince rarely if ever played with one. While Prince is best remembered for playing his Symbol and Cloud guitars, he played a telecaster-type electric most of all and none of these instruments were equipped with a whammy bar. Hendrix may be the GOAT, but when it comes to vibrato, Prince simply didn’t need the tools his peers relied on to make his six string wail and moan.
The second set was jam packed with hit after hit and although this made the half of the show higher energy, its numerous medleys felt rushed for the sake of covering as wide a swath of material as possible. On the other hand, the first set was lower key but came across as a much more focused meditation on the source material.
“Purple Rain” should have been the best part of the night but unfortunately it was a major disappointment. Rather than give the song the transformational treatment the rest of the songs had, for Prince’s most iconic ballad, the orchestra literally played along to a live recording of the song from Prince’s glory days. It can be argued that hearing the vocals and guitar solo from the man of the night offered a sentimentality that was appropriate for the finale of a tribute concert, but it felt like a missed opportunity of massive proportions. String instruments could have been arranged to supplement his vocals and the lead violinist who wowed the audience all night likely would have nailed the guitar solo played through her fiddle.
The night may have ended on a flat note, but that shouldn’t detract from the overall success of the performance. Over two sets, 4U: A Symphonic Tribute to Prince utilized multiple methods of adapting and interpreting his music in a way that managed to both take risks and play it safe. The man born Prince Rogers Nelson was both a crowd pleaser and an envelope pusher and the tribute successfully executed two different sets that were true to those dueling aspects of Prince’s greatness. Long Live the Purple One.