CHANHASSEN, Minn. – As dusk fell over Minnesota on Wednesday, many watched details surrounding Freddie Gray’s death unfold, while a message resounded from Paisley Park’s soundstage. Prince sat at his electric keyboard on the far right of the intricately lit stage. The rest of the venue was dark, mostly. Purple light filtered softly along the venue’s perimeters. Adding to an already calming ambiance, the scent of lavender flirted with pleasant hints of sandalwood in the air.
Earlier, afternoon errand-runs were highlighted by an invitation to sit in on “rehearsal.” A man who introduced himself as “Anthony” escorted me to the back of the arena. The view was hazy but exquisite in its own right. Guided to sit on a plush purple sofa, here, I was free of expectation. An earth-toned hat covered the legend’s Afro almost completely. The cap matching a vest he wore over a foiled-silver ensemble set in a slate gray silky material. Either way he was fitted for work or play. Play to Mr. Nelson these days might mean a quick break from the studio to watch his DVR-ed episodes of “New Girl” in the kitchen, or a seated moment to email a funny meme to a friend, and just maybe a swift bike ride around Chanhassen, Minn. He and 3rdEyeGirl began their “rehearsal” on stage. “From the top,” he said. “With a little more life.” He instructed Ida Nielson on bass, Hanna Welton on drums, Donna Grantis on guitar. Welton’s husband, Joshua, who played a significant role in the production of the 2014 album release “Art Official Age,” at a separate board, opposite Prince.
“Nobody got in nobody’s way,” The Purple One began to sing. “So I guess you could say it was a good day. At least a little better than the day in Baltimore. Does anybody hear us pray? For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray Peace is more than the absence of war…” After the first verse, it became abundantly clear this was more performance than “rehearsal.” The sound men, technicians and myself quietly watching a live recording of a freshly penned song. “Are we gonna see another bloody day? We’re tired of cryin’ and people dyin’. Let’s take all the guns away. Absence of war – you and me. Maybe we can finally say ‘enough is enough.’ It’s time for love. It’s time to hear, it’s time to hear, the guitar play!” While still seated at the keyboard, Prince then played a tear-evoking electric guitar solo for the remainder of the song.
Moved, I quickly wiped an eye as he walked over. “Come with me,” he said. After leading me inside Studio B he motioned to a red sofa. Peering up I asked, “What’s it called?” “Baltimore,” he replied. Then he reached for a sip of Blk Water, an alkaline-infused, mineral water for the particularly health conscious. “With everything going on there this week, I had a lot I needed to get out,” Prince said. He then segued into a brief discussion about Joni Mitchell’s health scare. “That news this week, and what’s happening in Baltimore,” he paused, “well, you know.” Prince is perhaps one of Joni Mitchell’s biggest fans. Recently I learned “Court & Spark,” Mitchell’s 1974 album release, is one of the artist’s top five favorite albums of all time. You may remember the reference to the folk legend in The Ballad of Dorothy Parker on his 1987 release “Sign O’ the Times.” ‘Oh, my favorite song’ she said. And it was Joni singing ‘Help me I think I’m falling’.” In a healthy display of emotion, he looked at the studio floor for a second. Fighting tears of his own, Prince politely excused himself to serve water for the both of us. Even in a fleeting moment of sadness, Prince remains magical. More so in his mourning over Joni’s condition. Further in his desire for justice, and overall concern for humanity. Unpleasant times often prod to be channeled into creative expression. Hence, Prince and 3rdEyeGirl’s “Baltimore.”
This week’s turmoil, marked by protests following the violent riots in Baltimore, is still only days old. President Barack Obama this week announced the deaths of black men by police as a “slow-rolling crisis.” The private recording inside Paisley Park is certainly not the first time Prince has weaved social commentary into a performance, or even a brief appearance. With a poignant a five-second sound bite Prince rocked this year’s Grammy’s. “Like books and Black lives, albums still matter,” he announced before presenting Album of the Year. The Afro set round, free and proud that night. The sight alone surely had black and brown folks across the country raising power fists from their sofas in solidarity. He stood in a glazed, bright orange, silky-fit to boot. Women swooned, viewers at home rooted on, hearts sang across the world, as Twitter erupted in mainly cathartic response. No guitar.
Prince’s approach to conveying this sort of commentary, however, varies. At the 2013 Billboard Awards during 3rdEyeGirl’s performance of “FixUrLifeUp” the words “Gun Control” were the projected backdrop. This particular night the “Purple Yoda,” as he’s endearingly known to some, was “featured” on lead guitar. Controversy, Free, When Will We B Paid, Dreamer, Ol’ Skool Company. All among plenty of songs recorded over the years denoting Prince’s stance on a variety of societal issues — stance often left open to listener interpretation. These days it seems “His Royal Badness” is taking a more direct approach to combat an often silent, yet dangerous, nemesis — One that seems glumly hovered over the Black Lives Matter movement. Indifference.
Back on the purple sofa, the definition of “indifference” was among an array of multimedia imagery Prince invited me to preview on the soundstage projector screen. “Noun. Lack of interest, concern, or sympathy: she shrugged, feigning indifference.” The words faded to blue, a new image appeared on the screen. An audio-visual technician in from Montreal led the preview referring to Mr. Nelson as “sir.” The man took notes and feedback earnestly. We viewed approximately 25 bright, distinctive, thought-provoking images.
Prince, 3rdEyeGirl, and crew have been investing at least their latest spring hours recording and rehearsing. The recent rehearsals, I’m told, are to prepare for upcoming, unannounced tours in the United States and abroad. Anticipate “Baltimore” as a likely inclusion. “We’re going to talk to Jay-Z and his people about streaming it on ‘Tidal’,” he shared with a nod. “This is first time we have ever recorded a song live on the soundstage,” Prince added, as we walked toward the studio’s parking lot. A proud yet modest smile complemented his shy eyes.
Few can comfortably ignore the current upheaval denouncing chronic cases of police brutality across the country anymore. Whether your thoughts are with Michael Brown, Freddie Gray — let alone anyone who’s faced senseless violence, or not at all — Prince’s are.
Story Courtesy Of KMSP-TV Minneapolis/St. Paul