Sept. 26, 2012
A sign appeared signifying an opening in the time-space continuum: A sunset in the East.
To concertgoers heading east along Madison Street toward the United Center, the sunset's reflection glowed against Chicago's iconic skyline — like a halo shrouding the stadium about to transform into a funk sanctuary under the direction of Maestro Prince.
Indeed, transformation proved to be the theme of the evening. So, yes, to all the literary critics, this story is about Prince and should cut to the chase: As the last night of a three-night, consecutive run, how was the concert? The short answer: He blew the roof off the joint. A more nuanced answer follows, but, to truly understand it, one must first understand that Prince is throwing a series of parties for us — and him — all of us.
Through this experience, not only is he refilling beleaguered souls with the transformative sounds of some of the planet's most talented musicians, Prince is working to remind us that there is no "I" in team, that when we proudly recite the words "freedom and justice for all," we remember the all.
To appreciate the importance of this notion, please indulge a little scene setting.
Upon entering the building, a series of colorful and engaging displays wrapped the United Center's interior perimeter, upstaging the sterile, homogenous concession displays advocating mindless, unhealthy consumption.
People with the Chicago Freedom School, a group that educates youth about the history of social justice and encourages them to create actions to affect change in areas in which they feel moved, greet passersby and invite them to pick up a picket sign of their choosing and pose for a rally shot.
- Upon entering the United Center, The Chicago Freedom School encourages me to take a stand for justice.
Welcome to the Prince Experience: The game begins.
Step one: Grab a card with spaces for four stamps: community, ecology, economy and food.
Step two: Note that several activists are hosting displays in areas reserved for each stamp. Visit with them and learn about their work. Collect stamps from all four areas to document your journey.
Step three: Return completed cards to the Rebuild the Dream stand to enter a raffle for a VIP upgrade. [During the concert, Prince's VIPs are arranged at cocktail tables surrounding the stage, which is crafted in-the-round style, in the shape of his Love #2 symbol — the one that, for a stretch of several years, served as his name.]
Ensuing encounters included: Growing Home, a certified organic Community Supported Agriculture program that also serves as an employment program for in-transition individuals re-entering society from prison; Fresh Moves, a mobile produce market developed to flood so-called food deserts (large swaths of urban land, often ghettoized, that lack access to fresh produce); and UrbanPonics, which brings the bounty of hydroponic veggie operations to underserved neighborhoods.
Advocate Russ Astoria of the Citizens Climate Lobby talked about CCL's efforts to gather support in Congress for a "carbon fee and dividend" policy, which would apply a fee to carbon at the point of extraction with the dividends returned to each citizen.
"To internalize externalities," Astoria said. In other words: Attach a price to the environmental costs the market does not yet factor into products such as coal-fueled electricity or hydrofracked natural gas.
- Performance Art "Solidarity = Respect = Love"
A life performance art piece, "Solidarity = Respect + Love" unfolded for the guests. It involving the ever-evolving moves of four teenagers — Nurudeen Tobi Dawody, Sarah Santizo, Rachmann Rocky Muhammad and Olalade Taiwo — as their peers, painter Genevieve McCloskey and clay artist Marisol Garcia documented the experience in their respective mediums.
- Painter Genevieve McCloskey
- Sculptor Marisol Garcia
The artist's inspiration lay in this quote from Samora Moises Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique:
"International solidarity is not an act of charity. It is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives. The foremost of these objectives is to aid the development of humanity to the highest level possible."
Around the bend, a jazz quartet from The James Brown Family Children Foundation, set a swanky tone to the goings on in the periphery. Meanwhile, an insistent bass pounds nonstop from within the interior, reminding us of the pressing business at hand.
The Sweet Beginnings beeline booth, with its active honeybee hive, and associated products beckons me. Sweet Beginnings has hives at the Cook County Jail, the airport, a community college. While packaging honey and honey-based beauty products, Sweet Beginnings, a project of the North Lawndale Employment Network, also provides employment and support to people recently released from prison.
A taste of honey sweetened my anticipation as I wound through the hive of the stadium, winding closer to the epicenter. The buzz of the Rainbow Children, the New Power Generation, the Purple Hippies — the fans — electrified the atmosphere with a high degree of sexiness enhanced with a higher calling to Love One Another.
- A Prince doppleganger poses with fans before the show.
Long before Prince took the stage, perhaps before Prince even entered the building, he'd given his guests an art opening, a jazz concert, a feeling of togetherness, and luscious honey.
The time came to cross into the inner sanctum. The second I stepped within coincided with the house lights fading to black as a rocking drum set the beat. The light returned to reveal a woman with bouffant bangs swept into a tight bun, white blouse, black jodhpurs and hipster-style wallet chains dangling at her hip: Janelle Monae.
A funktastic crew of musicians also embraced the monochromatic look, as did the beautiful backup singers in black skin-tight suits, black-and-white striped harlequin collars and white platform shoes, hyping up the crowd with The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."
Monáe killed it. Sounded almost exactly like little Michael, actually, inciting roaring appreciation from an audience with enough affinity for South Chicago and Gary to consider MJ a hometown hero. In her brief set, Mon e proceeded to showcase an animated style and vocal flexibility culminating in her horn-laced hit "Tight Rope."
Before she her last number, Monáe offered a dedication: "This song for everyone suffering for a cause. Life can be a cold war: We all must know what we are fighting for."
Soon, the arena once again faded to black and the stage began glowing like a spaceship preparing for liftoff. Smoke machines aided the effect. Lighting bolts began circling his piano and musicians began pouring onto the set and — Lift off! —Prince appears center stage in a puff of smoke. The theme of transformation that appeared to manifest itself in so many ways earlier in the evening received literal confirmation: Imprinted in red on his shirt's background of black and yellow on his chest, his arms, his back — a Transformer, one of the cartoon autobots working to uphold freedom and justice as evil Decepticons plot to destroy everything good.
He lays into "Controversy." Time to release oneself to the experience.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune said the band is the largest he had ever used in the more than 30 years he's been performing. The horn section alone — 11 members strong — had its own stage. And that's not even including the legendary Maceo Parker, (yes, the same Maceo who kept the sax on time for James Brown). He held a position of honor next to Prince.
Prince's sound, as it has been for decades, is as tight as a drum skin. If he says "on the one," "on the four" or "scrub the dishes," his band responds in accord. Watching him coax his formidable horn section into a riff honoring one of Maceo's most well-known hooks as Mr. Parker watched signified that Prince not only appreciates the power of his roots (deeply connected to R&B, funk, rock 'n roll and jazz) but that those associated with him must appreciate those roots, as well.
Prince and the band worked through fresh renditions of several signature favorites including "Little Red Corvette," "1999," "Let's Go Crazy," "Cream" and "Raspberry Beret." Among a virtual endless stream of personal highlights: watching, listening, feeling him explore "Joy in Repetition," a super sexy jam from Graffiti Bridge.
He also paid an MJ tribute, unleashing a rocking version of "Don't Stop 'till You Get Enough."
The smoking jams of more recent albums were conspicuous in their absence. But, with more than 30 studio albums under his belt, a comprehensive retrospective would take days, perhaps even weeks.
For an encore, he played an extended version of "Purple Rain," allowing the audience to vocalize its appreciation through some call and response before he left the stage.
Having been thoroughly satisfied at every step through his performance, I felt a little guilty feeling that the evening couldn't possibly be complete without him taking a seat at his piano. Still, the piano had active lightening bolts cracking for crying out loud! Certainly, if any piano in Chicago needed unleashed that night, it was Prince's piano.
But the house lights were up and the stagehands were breaking down the equipment. One of them popped the piano lid, disarming some of the instrument's internal power. My voice was gone. My spirit restored. Perhaps it really was time to face the streets. But, thank goodness, no. The insistent chorus of pleas rendered their intended effect: Prince returned to the stage and moved straight to the piano where we were treated to the classics "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" and "Do Me Baby." He also played "The Glamorous Life," a song he wrote and Sheila E. popularized in the '80s. In line with roots appreciation, the song contained a salient message for a reality-show culture consumed with fetishizing empty fame, fame for fame's sake: "Without love, it ain't much."
Back to the evening's larger purpose. "Let's take care of one another," he said, before heading off to his after party.
Earlier, in an appearance on The View with Rebuild the Dream founder Van Jones and actress Rosario Dawson, who serves as the group's spokesperson, Prince explained why he was donating the Chicago proceeds to the effort encourage economic justice as the country attempts to recover from the brutality of recession.
"It's not political," he said. "We're at a place now in this country where we're going to have to work together and stop looking at each other's affiliation and start taking care of each other. It's desperate times."
Prince has always been one to destroy barriers, annihilate stereotypes. At Wednesday's concert, he encouraged the audience to work beyond politics to find commonalities.
After all, he said, "Red and Blue make Purple."
Kind of like the Transformer's rally cry, "'Till all are one!"