Prince was far more than just “Purple Rain.” He could write an amazing ballad with the best of them, but his career was always such a multifaceted, long-running, constantly shifting thing that prioritizing one of his songs as definitive, even the title track to a debut movie and a soundtrack that went 22 times platinum, feels reductive. Then again, every musician should hope to write a song they could be “reduced” to that’s as versatile yet inseparable from their identity as “Purple Rain” — a pop song with a gospel-soul heart pumping a hard rock power-ballad bloodstream, a love song that contains heartbreak and hope, goodbye and see-you-again all at once, a guitar performance bested in its indelible power only by the singer himself.
It seems like an intimidating thing to give yourself to, especially if you’re using it to pay funereal respects to the man who wrote and recorded it. But over the last year, that’s what countless musicians did, starting the very night Prince died and not letting up yet. When a wave of cover versions arrives in the form of a collective eulogy, it’s easy to put the whys and hows under the microscope; of course everyone would gravitate toward the perfect confluence of sentiment, recognizability, and adaptability. But while there are some versions floating out there that seem like they’re too awkward to address — we’ll spare you any exposure to the live versions recorded by L.A. Guns, Daughtry, or Rascal Flatts — it’s still worth looking into what it means when artists grieve and give voice to their fans’ grieving, all while doing their best to stay true to both themselves and the source material. Here are 10 live performances, all from the past 12 months, that do just that.
If you are Corey Taylor, Iowa-born frontman and songwriter for Slipknot and Stone Sour, and you are scheduled for a solo acoustic concert at First Avenue that winds up falling on the actual day Prince died, what are you going to do — not cover “Purple Rain” on the stage the man made famous? That it works fairly well, even if he doesn’t try reproducing that searing guitar solo coda, hints at something deeper. Taylor’s spent a lot of time and effort breaking out from his dark-and-brooding Midwest hesher rep to try and foreground his Renaissance-man bonafides, and leading off his set with it not only cut straight to the heart of a music-lover’s immediate thoughts, it fit with a set that also included influence-nod covers of R.E.M., Creedence Clearwater Revival, Buzzcocks, Van Morrison, and the Cure. Even masked alt-metal dudes know the power of a classic-meets-college rock canon, and it’s a notable bit of eulogizing to reinforce the idea that Prince feels like he belongs as much in there as he does in pop and R&B.
Sufjan Stevens With Gallant
By the 22nd of April, the tributes had begun flooding in — particularly at Coachella, where Prince had performed a now-legendary set back in 2008. Earlier in the day, R&B up-and-comer Gallant included an abbreviated Jhené Aiko duet cover of “Diamonds And Pearls” in his own set, but it was his own appearance as Sufjan Stevens’ guest on a set-closing version of “Purple Rain” that really let him loose. Even through this clip’s janky, wind-distorted audio, you can really hear him aching beneath the stagecraft, one of those performances that has virtuoso power behind it while still showing a performer overwhelmed by the emotional moment of the song itself. And hey, turns out that Sufjan can get pretty gnarled on the guitar when he wants.
For a while, it was a fascinating thing to see classic rock heroes who preceded Prince pay tribute to him — influence, lest we forget, cuts both ways. Bruce Springsteen had already started maturing into one of his first really challengingly intense modes with 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town when a babyfaced Prince debuted with For You, but by 1984 they both had enough room to take long strides across a small-feeling Earth as two of pop’s biggest colossi. Purple Rain and Born In The USA paired together feel like an unusual crossroads in peak-blockbuster mid-’80s pop — urbane pop eroticism in its comfortable future home versus the poet laureate of Boomer ennui doing his best to find some solace in the big-synth new as the past refuses to stop haunting him. But both artists could cut right the center of every place that sadness or desperation lay in the midst of longing, and as this 4/23 performance proves, the voice who gave us “Prove It All Night” and “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” sounds like it could’ve been carefully, exactingly built to deliver “I never wanted to be your weekend lover/ I only wanted to be some kind of friend.”
Stevie Wonder & Madonna
Once things got really coordinated — award-show-tribute coordinated, with people who could be considered Prince’s peers in international multiplatinum Imperial Phase Pop superstardom — it was starting to feel like an inevitability that “Purple Rain” would always be called up to be the perpetual showstopper remembrance of the man. Somehow, the 2016 Billboard Awards caught hell for their choice: Sure, there’s Stevie Wonder, the man who’d preceded Prince as pop music’s foremost prodigious R&B singer-songwriter-producer-innovator-multi-instrumentalist. But then there was Madonna, the equally controversial, fashionable, iconographic-yet-iconoclastic cohort who had an on-again-off-again working relationship (and a surprisingly overlooked collaboration at both their peaks). A month after Prince’s passing, detractors made fewer allowances for of-the-moment emotions and personal connection in Madonna’s appearance, both before the act (the show’s producer had to defend the decision due to public outcry) and afterwards (the performance was shredded on social media). In retrospect, her appearance wasn’t worth the hostility — it’s unspectacular, but she harmonizes just fine with Stevie in a performance that feels deeper for what it represents than what it sounds like. And in a world where we’re more likely to remember Sheila E and the New Power Generation going all-in with their barrage-of-hits medley tribute to Prince in upbeat party-music mode on that year’s BET Awards, that’s just about good enough.
If you had to think of a typical band that would add “Purple Rain” to their setlist less than a week after Prince passed and wind up covering it on a regular basis all the way through the end of summer ’16, “metal/hardcore crossover act with a penchant for high-speed three-minutes-or-less barrages of machine-gun-drummed thrash” probably wouldn’t be too high up on the list of candidates. But every Sabbath has its “Changes,” and go figure, Converge/Cave In member supergroup Mutoid Man found a way to make “Purple Rain” sound like lumbering, distortion-drowned stoner rock par excellence before using it to segue into their own Bleeder standout “Bridgeburner.” Shred recognize shred.
You know you’ve got a standard on your hands when genre becomes an afterthought. While country acts all joined the big cover-version pile-on — Darius Rucker, it turns out, has performed “Purple Rain” live more often than anyone other than Prince himself — it feels most natural in the hands of Dwight Yoakam, who’d launched his career playing LA punk clubs with the Blasters and X when the Urban Cowboy trendies of the early ’80s locked him out of Nashville. Maybe he saw a bit of himself in The Kid and his attempts to cope with a tumultuous life through music in some circa-1984 movie theater, got awestruck at that closing-number stage presence and had it stick in his head for ages until he finally had a chance to perform it as a somewhat more uptempo but no less melancholy Americana number.
Booker T. Jones
A young black man discovers his musical talents early, becomes a session player while still in high school, forms a notably multi-racial band, and has his music become characteristic of a distinct Mississippi River city music scene. If you believe in tales twice told, no wonder Hammond B3 player and enduring soul icon Booker T. Jones took to Prince’s music. Sure, it’s not a direct line from the M.G.s to the NPG, but if you think about artistic braintrusts rooted in a certain place and time, it’s fun to think of the parallels. “Purple Rain” was in Jones’ setlist years before Prince passed — he’s first on record having played it in early 2014, and often slipped it in as one of the only outlier performances in a set otherwise primarily filled with songs he’d written and played with Booker T. & The M.G.’s or Albert King. (One of those times was a July 4, 2015 show at Minneapolis’s Dakota Jazz Club, a venue Prince had been known to drop in unexpectedly for on occasion.) Jones’ version of “Purple Rain” is something special for another couple reasons — for one, he typically plays it with accompaniment by Ted Jones in a father-son team-up, and for another, he actually sings and plays guitar on it, two things he hadn’t been renowned or even known for until years into his post-M.G.’s solo career.
Speaking of artists with parallels to Prince, here’s a pop star with a striking voice, an inimitable fashion sense, a multicultural band, and a cross-genre appeal who ruled the charts in the mid ’80s — though where else their paths might intersect seems less crucial than where they diverge. Boy George had a stretch in the UK and a shorter period in the States where he was practically as well-known as Prince, though there were limits — particularly in the Reagan-Thatcher ’80s — as to how long and openly mainstream culture would tolerate his queerness, implicit or otherwise. On top of that, he wound up struggling with a heroin addiction to the point where it would break up Culture Club and wreak havoc on a restless solo career alternately marked by personal reinvention and self-consciousness over his celebrity. By July 2016, it was publicly known that Prince’s own fight with a painkiller addiction was what eventually took his life, and that must have been close to the forefront of Boy George’s mind during one of his handful of “Purple Rain” performances — performed, notably, when he was eight years sober and counting.
Larry Graham & Graham Central Station
Few musicians Prince met and brought into his life post-fame had quite the impact on him that Larry Graham did. Already a central figure in one of the most influential bands of all time, Sly & The Family Stone — a directly recognizable precedent to Prince’s daring pop brilliance as any you could think of — Graham had another life-changing influence on Prince when he introduced His Royal Badness to the life of a Jehovah’s Witness. They remained close friends as well as occasional late tourmates and collaborators, to the point where Graham was one of the people who eulogized him at his church’s memorial service. While that was a private moment, he’s also found his own way to eulogize his friend in concert, with this performance at the New York BB King Blues Club as heartfelt a tribute as you could want from someone whose career long predated his association with a man — “my spiritual brother, my spiritual son, [and] my best friend” — who owed so much to him. The moment where he talks up Prince’s tendency to just show up unannounced and join him onstage captures the man’s spirit just as vividly as his musical performance does, though points for finding a way for one of the most influential living bassists to pay homage with a Prince song that’s only bested by “Kiss” and “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” in making its bassline an afterthought.
The New Power Generation
October 2016’s tribute to Prince at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center was the closest the Twin Cities got to a combination of massive all-star concert and local-icon remembrance. And even through its overlong five-hour running time and a number of up-and-down performances, hearing Prince’s voice one last time — not so much a cover as it was a reconstruction — was one of those true lasting impressions that turned out to be the ideal and only way to close out a remembrance that emotionally draining.