by Bomani Jones —
YouTube is hosting a Prince and the Revolution concert from March 30, 1985, in Syracuse, New York. It is the most incredible Prince thing on the Internet, surpassing both the guitar solo from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and his explanation to Chris Rock about why he wouldn’t do “Bad” as a duet with Michael Jackson.
Watch it. I doubt you have a better way to spend two hours.
The audio from the concert has been turned into an album on streaming services. These developments are a big deal. Up to now, has there been a definitive live Prince performance and album? He released plenty of concert albums, an eclectic mix reflecting whatever he was on at that time. But he doesn’t have a Live at the Apollo or Gratitude, a documentation of him in his prime, squarely in his moment rather than looking back. The film Sign ’o’ the Times is revered by Prince fans but, clearly rushed and shot on sound stages at Paisley Park, it’s no Homecoming.
Prince and the Revolution in Syracuse? That’s a movie, and it’s being captured in the time that defines his legendary career. The night was too magical to be expected, or else this would have been shot with all the cameras, from all the angles, because all of it demanded attention. It felt like sex, love and the freedom to put them together or split them apart, with guilt little more than a fleeting thought.
With constant passion, there’s room in this show for every note in the emotional register, for God and devilish thoughts to party together for a couple of hours. It would seem manic if it wasn’t so clear that Prince was always in control of the only things that mattered in that time and place – himself, the music, the tens of thousands of fans.
It’s like watching Michael Jordan in 1992. This isn’t about guile or savvy. No one’s leaning on any tried-and-true fadeaway jumper. This is a relentless attack, inexhaustible energy, contagious swagger and intoxicating brilliance from a singular, once-in-a-lifetime artist. This is the radiant confidence of someone with one chip in the bag – for Prince, that was 1999 – knowing he’s rising to immortality. He’s in a perfect pocket, familiar to the audience but still fresh and new. For two hours, as would be the case for about two years, the world – in ways big and small – was his.
Prince’s day-one fans in the Carrier Dome were probably disappointed with the setlist at this show. Most of the tracks he played on the 1999 tour were gone, and all the songs but one were released between 1999 and his then-current juggernaut, Purple Rain. The hypebeasts were certainly pleased, but so was everyone else. The show’s presentation leaned heavily on Purple Rain and his videos, often the same shots with a similar wardrobe. The first number of the show was the first of the film, “Let’s Go Crazy,” with the “dearly beloved …” intro and everything.
The energy surges immediately, the groove rocking and bouncing at once, Prince in a purple pantsuit with a feather something around his neck, somehow fully engaging the audience with intimate eye contact while destroying the guitar solo. It’s all a giant flex, his No. 1 single from his No. 1 album and film, and he knew there was no one else on earth who could pull any of it – including turning those gritty riffs into a sweaty dance number about going to heaven – off. There was no one to check him because there was no one who could catch him. And now, for the first time, he had a band good enough to share his billing.
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He was Jimi, Jackie and James in those 23 minutes, but always Prince. It was everything that was his best, whether it was micro-level things such as dancing and singing, or bigger picture things like working with the band.
There were so many brilliant arrangements and reimaginations, from “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” squarely in the Little Richard space to “When Doves Cry” building from its eerie bassless origins to a full-throated, nine-minute jam. “Baby I’m A Star” turned the performance into his “Stop Making Sense,” with the stage full of his merry band of freaks in everything from scrubs to lingerie having as much fun as everyone else. It was the Prince experience on sensory overload, the class picture and senior song of the coolest misfits imaginable.
The dance party closed with a benediction. “Purple Rain” has become Prince’s signature song – aided by the branding of the movie and the public’s affection for songs about colors – but of all his best songs, it’s the one that sounds the most like someone else could have come up with it. It’s not like “If I Was Your Girlfriend” or “When Doves Cry,” concepts no one else could think of. There are others who could come up with “Purple Rain’s” lyrics, and there are dozens of tracks that sound more distinctly like Prince. It is him at his most conventional, but never is he stronger.
Melvoin played the opening riff, backed by sparse drumming and synths, with the palpable feeling something is about to happen. In Syracuse, he spent minutes just playing around on the guitar, his long, thin fingers effortlessly dancing up and down the fretboard while the band played a loop. Then the tone went from one familiar tone to another, the Hohner BlackCat handed off, emerging at center stage with the infamous white cloud guitar, ready to passionately sing what George Clinton described as “Jimi Hendrix singing country music.”
That’s all buildup to the solo. “Purple Rain” is always about the solo, as the production adds a little more as it goes and the singing becomes more urgent before the first note of the solo explodes through the speakers. It’s at this moment that Prince, wielding an ax nearly his size, towers over his peers and every other mortal, his shadow wider than ever. He jumps in everyone’s lane – soul men, shredders, preachers and sinners – and runs them off the road.
And live, when it seems he can’t wail any louder or more plaintively, he breathes into the strings and exhales even more fire. For minute after minute, as the maple guitar belts out the sustained high notes it was perfectly built to produce, anyone who could hear or see him belonged to the moment, and only Bobby Z.’s perfectly timed crash cymbals to shake you from the trance.
The solo brings people to tears, but it isn’t sad. That solo in Syracuse is a climactic, euphoric release of undistilled emotion shared by all, but particular to each individual.
They all sang along to “Darling Nikki,” but “Purple Rain” hits the hardest without words. It becomes what you want or need it to be. And those 19 minutes in Syracuse were anything anyone could want or need in the world.
Everything hits differently now that Prince is dead. He left four years ago, and his estate has steadily released content fans were aware that Prince never shared. The merchandising has been awkward on occasion, but the music has been incredible. Rehearsal and demos tapes such as Originals and A Piano & a Microphone 1983 have spoken to simpler times, allowing a window into Prince as a creator and collaborator, without all the noise that augments his legend.Music is timeless, but understanding what Prince meant in his time can’t be captured with audio and still photos.
But much like Michael Jordan, there’s a generation who missed when Prince was on top. Music is timeless, but understanding what Prince meant in his time can’t be captured with audio and still photos. They can get a sense of the greatness in snippets, but feeling it takes a little more. Experiencing him in the context of his prime brings it all together, head, heart and shakin’ butt in the same space. This is why people loved this man so much.
If you already have a good idea about what Prince was, there’s a dual experience watching the concert. To watch it is to be squarely in its moment, but there’s a reassuring familiarity with so much on screen. The brown Fender Telecaster is the same one he used in Purple Rain, the same one from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” is with him, like always. His interplay with the crowd was much like it was for decades, minus the piano humping he either stopped because he went Witness or because he was too old for all that. It was a reminder that somehow, through all the changes in times and sound and how he reacted to both, the guy who broke through in 1978 was the same one in 1985 and the one we lost in 2016.
Prince live in Syracuse isn’t a footnote to his legend. It is central. The persona of Prince had fully caught up with his talent. His skill now matched his ambition. He was a multimedia phenomenon, and he did it without significant artistic compromise. And this is what a night with Prince and the Revolution was like. This is what made people sing, dance and cry.
This is why he’s unforgettable. And bathing in this concert and album, sharing it with anyone unaware, is how he remains that way.