When bad things happen, concerts usually follow.
After 9/11, there was America: A Tribute to Heroes and the Concert for New York. After Hurricane Katrina, the major TV networks broadcast A Concert for Hurricane Relief, an event famous for Kanye West’s declaration that, “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and Shelter for the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast. Funds were raised for both Haiti earthquake aid in 2010 and Hurricane Sandy relief in 2012 broadcast concerts featuring all-star talent. During difficult times, it’s human nature to want to help, and to seek catharsis in a shared experience. Concerts are the perfect vessel for that shared experience. They’re the equivalent of a visit to secular church.
The instinct to replicate that mix of the musical and the spiritual has fully kicked in during the coronavirus pandemic. Artists across genres have been regularly streaming performances on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms. During the past month, various concert specials have aired on broadcast TV and streamed online, culminating with Saturday’s massive One World: Together at Home event, a collection of performances recorded by artists from around the globe.
All of these efforts have provided comfort and joy at a time when both are in short supply. But, for obvious reasons, they can’t quite fill the musical void in the same way that previous benefit and crisis-time concerts have. So far, the closest thing I have found is one concert special that airs Tuesday night on CBS: Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince.
This Prince tribute, airing on the fourth anniversary of his death, is more compelling than a lot of post-corona concerts for a simple reason: it was shot pre-social-distancing, on January 28 in L.A., two days after the first two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the state of California. That means multiple musicians were able to be onstage together at the Los Angeles Convention Center. It also means an audience was present. In other words, it’s a concert TV audiences haven’t seen, broadcast to us from the Before Time.
There is no COVID-19 talk during the show, hosted by Prince super-fan Maya Rudolph. (Or if there was on the actual night it was filmed, it’s been edited out of the special.) But there is a palpable sense of grief and loss that mirrors the feelings of this moment, channeled through the still-glaring absence of Prince. The performances also generate a level of joy and electricity that can’t be matched by one person singing a ballad from behind a piano in their living room, or even the Rolling Stones video conferencing a socially distanced version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” featuring quality air drumming by Charlie Watts.
I wrote earlier that a concert is a secular church visit, so it’s appropriate that this one opens with the sound of Prince’s voice saying, “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” a statement that could easily double as a mantra for hobbling through this pandemic. H.E.R. and Gary Clark, Jr. take over from there, with a blistering, guitar-heavy cover of “Let’s Go Crazy” that does the Purple One absolute justice.
Like any tribute concert, the nostalgic factor runs high. Sometimes it runs high on multiple levels. Watching Beck, dressed in a ruffled, Prince-style blouse, singing “Raspberry Beret” made me wistful for the ’80s, when the song was originally released, and also the ’90s, when Beck first emerged as a Gen X, alt-rock poet looking … well, honestly, looking exactly the same as he does now, in 2020.
Watching Foo Fighters perform their cover of “Darling Nikki” — exciting news: it appears that Dave Grohl is able to say “masturbating with a magazine” on television, a thing that was not possible on the radio in the mid-’80s — made me re-appreciate the Purple Rain original as well as this cover, which I had not heard in at least a decade.
And then there are the more direct hits of nostalgia mixed with “they still got it” awe that come with seeing The Time doing a medley of their hits, complete with Morris Day checking out his hair in the mirror multiple times; or Maya Rudolph and her counterpart in the Prince cover duo Princess, Gretchen Lieberum, having the time of their lives singing “Delirious” with Prince’s signature band, The Revolution; or Sheila E., who played a key role in organizing the event, reaffirming that she’s still a percussion beast who’s also capable of sliding across a stage like she’s trying to steal third base.
In short, the Prince tribute is just fun, celebratory in a way that things used to be when people were allowed to stand much closer than six feet from each other and dance their hearts out to “Baby I’m a Star.” As much as I’ve been moved by some of the musical performances I’ve streamed or viewed in recent weeks, I don’t think I’ve had as much fun watching a concert as I had previewing this one.
Leave it to Prince.