Prince Rogers Nelson hailed from, and was closely identified with, Minneapolis, at the opposite end of the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Yet, his music — deeply funky and inherently sexy — resonated in the Crescent City, as evidenced by the fact that his local venue of choice was the largest one in town: the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
He headlined the Dome on Feb. 5, 1985, during the epic tour for his landmark “Purple Rain” album. More recently, he became the go-to superstar whenever the Essence Festival had an anniversary to celebrate. He filled the Superdome during the 10th anniversary Essence Fest in 2004 and, again, for the 20th anniversary in 2014.
“It’s been a creative evolution as to exactly what the structure is going to be, and it has evolved a little later than usual,” Davis said at the time. “Prince had a vision of what he wanted this night to be musically, and we evolved with that. It’s his show.”
Longtime collaborators and Minneapolis cohorts Morris Day & the Time ended up opening Prince Night. Another, unnamed group of musician associates, including percussionist Sheila E., played a set while Prince roller-skated around the stage, incognito in a wig, sunglasses and fake beard.
Because … why not?
He returned sans disguise to lead his nine-piece New Power Generation for two hours. The opening “Musicology” gave way to a nonstop, 15-minute medley of classic singles: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” “When Doves Cry.” He welcomed singer Chaka Khan, funk saxophone legend Maceo Parker and hip-hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh to the stage, which spoke to the span of his own music.
But this was clearly his show. He was in constant motion: draping a cloth over the body of a feedback-emitting guitar, singing into a hand-held microphone affixed to a prop pistol, tearing off a succession of guitar solos.
“I believe in real music,” he said. “We’ve got some stars now that can’t sing and dance at the same time. That’s not the case tonight. I come from the old school.”
His powers were evident during a brief acoustic interlude. He sat midstage with an acoustic guitar — naturally, it was purple — and held the entirety of the Superdome in the palm of his hand with a stripped-down “Little Red Corvette.”
He teased fans with snippets of other hits, stroking his chin and considering whether to continue. “Y’all ain’t ready for that,” he said to roars of protest.
“Raspberry Beret” and “1999” were omitted entirely. Clearly, he wasn’t interested in being a human jukebox.
He returned to Essence 10 years later, on July 4, 2014, to open the festival’s 20th anniversary. The sold-out crowd of nearly 50,000 was one of the largest in the fest’s history.
He popped up onstage with both of his hand-picked opening acts, Janelle Monae and Nile Rodgers. He and Rodgers covered David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”
His own two-hour show opened with a guitar-heavy “Let’s Go Crazy.” He then set aside the guitar to act as bandleader for a sprawling ensemble of 11 horns and the hard-hitting, all-female rock band 3rdEyeGirl. They knocked off “Take Me With U,” Morris Day & the Time’s “Jungle Love,” “Hot Thing,” “Controversy,” “Kiss,” Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl,” “Sign o’ the Times,” “When Doves Cry,” “Raspberry Beret,” “1999” and a downshifted “Little Red Corvette.”
Trombone Shorty, wearing a purple button-down shirt, joined in for “Sometimes It Snows In April” and hung with the horn section for the rest of the show. Confetti cannons and an enormous bouquet of purple helium balloons floating into the Dome’s rafters heralded the encore of “Purple Rain.”
It was the last song Prince ever played in New Orleans.
Afterward, he headed to the House of Blues for a late-night after-party stocked with artists from his orbit. He briefly joined former New Power Generation singer Liv Warfield onstage but mostly was content to watch.
His work, then as now, was done.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.