Prince launched his much-anticipated Friday night show at the Essence Festival with a promise that was easy to keep.
“We’re going to play 14 hits in a row,” he told his Essence audience, which filled every available seat in the sold-out Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Prince and 3rd Eye Girl, the all-girl trio he’s been working with recently, opened with a crunching rock rendition of one of his myriad hits, “Let’s Go Crazy.”
“Y’all ready to get crazy in here tonight?” he asked during the song, which featured him and 3rd Eye Girl guitarists Donna Grantis and Ida Nielsen together on the catwalk amidst blasts of smoke that jetted up from the catwalk floor.
The hits continued in swift succession with “Take Me with U,” “Raspberry Beret,” “U Got the Look” and a non-Prince but apropos selection, Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.”
“All right,” Prince said following his opening onslaught. “Sound check is over.”
Obviously, Prince came to thrill. And he didn’t stop until way past 1 a.m. Saturday morning.
Before his own show, Prince made wordless cameos during performances by his two main-stage opening acts. There was a quick guitar solo during Janelle Monáe’s set and a slightly longer solo during Nile Rodgers and Chic’s show.
The star’s big entourage included a trio of singing, dancing backup vocalists, a dozen of so dancers and a 10-piece horn section. Guest stars showed up, too, including New Orleans Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and British singer Lianne La Havas.
On the occasion of the Essence Festival’s 20th anniversary, Prince noted the 30th anniversary of his album, “Purple Rain.” It was released June 25, 1984.
“Thirty years ago today, 30 years ago today,” he repeated before playing “When Doves Cry,” one of the show’s multiple songs from “Purple Rain.” Following “Take Me with U,” a happy song from the album, and the excited “Let’s Go Crazy,” Prince moved to dark drama with “When Doves Cry.” The throbbing low-end sonics in the song’s performance must have vibrated the Superdome to the core. On the Superdome floor, at least, that low end threatened to overwhelm vocals and the other instruments.
Prince instructed audience members to hold up cellphones for “1999.” When they did so en masse in the darkened Superdome, the place looked like a Christmas tree.
Prince chose a late-’60s look for the night. His gray poncho, white bellbottoms and hair in a bushy Afro made him resemble another famous singer-guitarist, Jimi Hendrix.
Beside performing “Little Red Corvette” and more hits from of his vast catalog, Prince sang “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the Prince-composed ballad that became a hit for Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor. Later there was “The Glamorous Life,” a Prince composition that was a hit for Sheila E.
Trombone Shorty joined Prince for an extended guest appearance that featured a new Prince song that’s right down Andrews’ alley, “Funk N Roll,” as well as the Morris Day and the Time hit, “Jungle Love.”
Prince and his big cast of supporting players left the stage at 12:50 a.m. He returned following sustained cheers and chants calling for “Purple Rain.” Prince performed the song accompanied by purple light and raining confetti.
Janelle Monáe and her seven-piece band got Friday’s Essence Festival main stage music off in high-octane style. Dressed in one of her signature, militaristic black and white outfits, Monáe danced incessantly through songs that blend pop, rock and soul. She also paid homage to James Brown with his funk classic, “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
Appearing between Monáe and Prince, Nile Rodgers and Chic’s Essence Festival show served as a great reminder of what a major figure Rodgers is in American music. The performance flowed seamlessly with hits from Chic’s disco glory years (“Dance Dance Dance,” “Le Freak,” “Good Times”) and songs Rodgers crafted for others (Diana Ross’ “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”). There was also “Get Lucky,” a hit from Rodgers’ 2013, Grammy-winning collaboration with Daft Punk’s 2013 album “Random Access Memories.”
The Essence Festival continues through Sunday.