Thirty-three civilians showed up to Paisley Park late last night. I know there were 33 of us because I ended up having plenty of time to count each and every one of us from left to right, then again from right to left and all the way up to the stage, which was littered with dozens of guitar pedals, two keyboard rigs, a drum set, and Prince’s signature glyph microphone.
I had shown up to Paisley Park around 11:30 p.m., having been summoned there only hours earlier with the promise that something “extra-special” might go down. As the 33 of us who were gathered there did our best to stay upright, sway to DJ KISS’s mix of Prince and ’80s pop tunes, and keep our wits about us, and as the clock crept past 1:30 a.m., I was just about to start counting the crowd again and contemplating the strength of that word might when a flurry of security guards with walkie-talkies started buzzing around and a door next to the stage swung open.
A steady stream of people started filing into the venue, and it took me a couple of blinks to realize that the first woman and the head of the pack was Madonna. She is a petite little powerhouse of a figure, and was dressed in a sharp navy trench coat-style cape with her hair neatly woven into a braid that fell down her right shoulder, like a pop star’s rendition of Little Red Riding Hood. Her bright lipstick and dark eyeliner appeared flawless, and as she scanned the strange scene—33 civilians dancing haphazardly, undoubtedly looking tired from all the waiting and the late hour, and her own hits blasting over the sound system—she looked so calm and coiffed that you would have never guessed that she had just finished performing a two-hour show in front of a sold-out crowd at the Xcel Energy Center.
It turns out that injecting Madonna’s entire professional dance troupe into a party is a surefire way to liven it up, and as more and more of the pop icon’s touring crew filtered in, a fully choreographed dance party soon broke out in the middle of the room. It was incredibly surreal standing on the sidelines attempting to groove to the music while what looked like a professional music video shoot sprawled out before us, but all of a sudden the energy in the place had been cranked to 11 and it was all we could do to try to soak up the crew’s ecstatic vibe.
Madonna was ushered into a roped-off section of the room and then disappeared, undoubtedly to have a few private moments with Prince while her team blew off a little steam on the dance floor. By 2:15 a.m. she had returned to the scene and was followed in short order by Prince, who stood near the back of the dance floor draped in a floor-length hooded sweater and smirked at the energetic dancers who were frolicking around the room.
As soon as Prince appeared the small crowd started pressing toward the stage, and even after Madonna’s tour buses had all been unloaded into Paisley Park there were still only roughly 60 people there to take in the impending show. Most of the people in attendance were standing within a couple yards of the band, and Prince seemed a little uncomfortable playing to such an intimate audience.
“You better keep dancing,” he instructed us, sitting at an organ and leading a new configuration of his band through a swampy, funky new song. 3RDEYEGIRL guitarist Donna Grantis was joined by a drummer Kirk Johnson and bassist Dwayne MonoNeon Thomas, Jr., who had more jazz and funk sensibilities than Grantis’s more hard-driving 3RDEYEGIRL bandmates Ida Neilsen and Hannah Ford Welton (who was dancing in the audience with her husband, Josh). The change in musicianship allowed Prince to deconstruct his songs into more complex, moody arrangements, tracing back to his roots in late ’70s jazz and funk.
As if to show off the band’s newly discovered chemistry, Prince followed up a rip-roaring rendition of “Guitar” with a lengthy, solo-filled jam to the Bill Withers song “Use Me Up.” After giving Grantis and his new bassist a turn at soloing, Prince slowed the song down and morphed it into a spacey, dreamy interlude, then tore through an impressive and complex piano solo that sounded like it was inspired in equal measure by Thelonious Monk and Jimi Hendrix.
When Prince launched into the next song, “Ain’t About to Stop,” off his latest album HITNRUN Phase One, I decided to try to discretely scan the room to see where Madonna was taking in the show. I had expected her to hang back a bit, or maybe sitting in her roped-off area, but once I stepped a little closer to the stage I realized that she was not only in the front row, but had perched on the edge of the stage at Prince’s feet, looking up at him adoringly as he sang.
There is a face that people make when they are watching Prince play guitar; it’s a gleeful expression that combines the joy of going down a roller coaster with the realization that you are witnessing a moment that might never be recreated by another being that lives on this beautiful Earth. It turns out Madonna also makes that face when she is watching Prince play. As the band stretched out into another jam and Prince ripped into a soul-levitating guitar solo, her mouth relaxed into an awestruck gape, revealing a shiny gold grill underneath her perfect red lipstick.
Prince, too, seemed a little awestruck by Madge, appearing nervous as he flitted around the stage to different instruments and taking great care to get the lighting, sound, and chord changes just right. It completely shifted the energy at the Park, which usually pulls like a magnet toward Prince’s spot in the room, and it was a rare chance to see two megastars share an intimate moment and a series of knowing smiles.
After the sixth song of the set, Prince leaned down and whispered something back and forth with Madonna, and then hopped back up to his keyboards and simply said, “Cool.” With that, Madonna made her way out of the building and Prince was left alone with his band and small group of adoring fans, and he delivered simmering renditions of “1000 X’s and O’s” and “X’s Face” before hopping off stage and handing things back to the DJ.
Sensing that we were well past 3 a.m. at that point, I started to make my way toward the door, but my friend and #1 Prince fan Heidi Vader later informed me that Prince returned to play two more short sets and even invited some of his fans up on stage to sing and dance along. Or did any of that really happen? On nights like these, it’s hard to tell.