When tickets for Prince's surprise "Rally 4 Peace" benefit concert at Royal Farms Arena went on sale last week, City Paper and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle were among those who criticized the concert for, among other things, exorbitant ticket prices and taking attention away from local, grassroots efforts. When it was announced that the first hour of the concert would be live-streamed for free on Jay-Z's fledgling Tidal service, cynics thought it looked oddly promotional.
We can still debate whether Prince's presence in Baltimore is ultimately helpful for reform efforts, but most of the thousands of people who attended the show last night seemed to deeply appreciate it, not just as a killer and historic gig--Prince hadn't played Baltimore in 14 years--but as a cathartic howl of love and affection for their hometown.
"I am your servant tonight, Baltimore," Prince said as he walked onstage at about 8:45, before launching into a dirgy, slowed-down take on 'Let's Go Crazy.' He was wearing a flowing gray suit. Many of those in attendance heeded the poster's direction to "wear something gray." Whenever the houselights came on, the floor was a sea of gray with the comical exception of one man in the middle of the arena wearing a bright orange Orioles jersey.
Prince launched into classics 'Take Me With U' and 'Raspberry Beret,' before playing his new song, 'Baltimore,' with peppy music that belies serious lyrics: "Does anybody hear us pray?/ For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray/ Peace is more than the absence of war." During the song, Prince brought State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and her husband, Councilman Nick Mosby, on to the stage. After an awkward wave, they returned to their seats on stage right without addressing the crowd.
"They said there's no curfew, so I don't know how long we're gonna go," Prince said before rolling into a slew of classics, including 'U Got the Look,' during which a shot of Baltimore's gleaming skyline was projected on the screen behind the stage, 'Controversy,' and '1999.' The arrangements, jazzier and funkier than the originals, incorporated a four-piece horn section and several backup singers. During a particularly rowdy version of 'Little Red Corvette,' Prince quipped, "I'm so funky, I can't even sleep with myself." After an impassioned version of 'Nothing Compares 2 U,' the band left the stage and this, presumably, is when the Tidal stream ended.
After several minutes, Prince and the band returned. "No curfew," he said and launched into 'When Doves Cry,' then 'Kiss,' featuring a verse from Doug E. Fresh, and some James Brown moves. There were several more encores, including an appearance from R&B singer Miguel on a cover of the Staple Singers' 'When Will We Be Paid' and Estelle on 'Purple Rain,' during which Prince made his first extended remarks.
"The system is broken," he said. "It's gonna take young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas, new life. Most of all, we need new piece--and the kind of piece I'm talking about is spelled P-I-E-C-E. Next time I come to Baltimore, I want to stay in a hotel owned by one of you... I want to play in a building owned and operated by you--I'm talking to the young people now."
The band left the stage again, this time for an extended period, and the crowd started chanting "No Curfew!" Eventually, the band returned and played an electrifying cover of Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough.' Before it was over, everyone was chanting "BAL-TI-MORE!" and the VIPs from the side of the stage (not including the Mosbys, who had stepped off earlier) were dancing with the band.
For two and a half hours, Prince celebrated Baltimore and its resilience, and even if it was short on specifics, the concert did raise money--and it's worth noting that Tidal matched all contributions made through the live stream--and gave the city a chance to let loose after several very tense weeks.