The Roots and Friends Party at the End of Time

A steamy tribute to Prince's "1999" burns up the stage
Posted Dec 14, 1999 at 12:00am
It's only fitting that a concert in tribute to Prince would have multiple orgasms, and when the young soul singer Bilal collapsed on the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House on Saturday night, he brought sexual drama like a diva. The song was "International Lover," and it started with dirty talk like, "If it gets too good for you, baby, you can reach back and, uh ... grab your bedpost. I want you to squeeze that." As the band, lead by guitarist Vernon Reid and Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson, gathered up its quiet storm, Bilal gyrated hotly and got his swerve on. Inching closer and closer to his peak, he, more than any other singer who performed, evoked the androgynous sensuality of "the Artist," so when he finally hit his climax everyone in the Opera House stood up and cheered.

The Big "O" got a standing O, which could only have pleased Prince, had he been present. Bilal could not have been more entertaining, though there was much humor to his performance -- one imagines that Prince himself doesn't regard sex and seduction as laughing matters. Still, this was an interpretation of Prince's 1999, and the artists took the license to find their own readings of the songs. The concert, organized by Reid and Thompson, presented the 1982 album in order, with guest singers and rappers fronting each song. Mostly, the Roots acted as the house band, showing that their mastery extends far beyond the borders of hip-hop, into synthy funk, rootsy soul, reggae and some styles that are difficult to categorize. They opened with "1999," performed over a free-floating pulse as Reid coaxed sitar sounds from his axe and singers Pierre Andre, Kim Lake and Vinia Mojica nailed the three-part harmonies that are only suggested on the album. The music was gloriously spacey, and when computerized children's voices asked, "Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?" the arrangement contrasted Prince's Reagan-era nuclear angst with our own pre-millennial tension.

From there, Joan Osborne emerged in a full-length red gown with furry boa to belt out a sultry, Southern version of "Little Red Corvette." This was a show-stopping moment, as Osborne gently fell back against the unbelievably relaxed groove established by Thompson and bassist Leonard Hubbard. Other songs were closer to the versions on the album, and the band often lapsed into epic funk jams ("Delirious"; "D.M.S.R.," featuring the West African singer Angelique Kidjo, who literally kicked and screamed her way through the song; "Lady Cab Driver" sung by Reid's old Living Color homey Corey Glover). The funk was hot, but the chairs in the Opera House didn't exactly encourage dancing. When the band was in full froth, the lyrics became tough to hear, so it was during quieter moments that the music became transcendent.

Prince Be of P.M. Dawn sang "Free" in a purple suit. The band interpreted this ballad over a Jamaican one-drop beat, and Be's singing tapped into a reservoir of innocence. He sounded like a young Michael Jackson as he recalled the wide-eyed, young Prince who wrote, "Be glad that you are free / Free to change your mind," long before he painted the word "slave" onto his face in protest of his contract with Warner Bros. Carl Hancock Rux lent his singularly expressive speaking (as opposed to either singing or rapping) voice to "All the Critics Love U in New York," as the group whipped up a loungey groove that sounded like Esquivel conducting a merengue band in a really fast elevator.

When the album was over, Toshi Reagon led the over two-dozen musicians through a reprise of "1999." Reagon followed Bilal on stage and wasn't shy about her appreciation for the young stud's sexual dramatization. But once she began plucking her acoustic guitar and interpreting "1999" as a blues number, the light mood evaporated. "When I woke up this morning, I could have sworn it was judgment day," she intoned, sounding like she meant it. Next, Reid and the three Roots keyboard players cranked out Prince's fabulous synth riff, and the whole room got up and danced. This was followed up with an encore of "Irresistible Bitch" -- the only song not from the 1999 album -- sung by Mark Anthony Thompson, a.k.a Chocolate Genius. The song, with its country music-parody verses, amped-up heavy metal choruses, and trash-talking (as opposed to dirty-talking) lyrics made for a pretty strange encore, but that in itself is fitting. Prince has always liked to keep audiences guessing.

Written by RODD McLEOD for News

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