If you’re angling to include Prince in the Great American Songbook, situating him alongside such tintype legends as Stephen Foster, you’re eventually going to have to contend with lyrics like “I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth.” That romantic sentiment, from 1982’s “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” is typical of early Prince, and typical of the challenges one might face when attempting to position the Purple One next to, say, the guy who wrote “Oh! Susanna.” But over several years and several iterations of its remarkable “Uncovered” series, Milwaukee’s Alverno Presents has made a Songbook case for similarly tricky artists—Marvin Gaye, Patti Smith, Quincy Jones—by giving Milwaukee-based artists a chance to reinterpret their works. Saturday night at Alverno’s Pitman Theatre, Prince was bestowed the “Uncovered” treatment in a thrilling, diverse, and surprisingly rowdy show curated by Hello Death.
Leading up to the show, the idea of reimagining the music of Prince via the dour sensibilities of gloomy folk band Hello Death seemed baffling at best. In practice, it was anything but. Taking to a stage framed by large, elaborate papercut patterns, Hello Death (joined by New Red Moons drummer Kavi Laud) turned “I Feel For You” into a slow, heavenly lament, highlighted by Nathaniel Heuer’s distorted acoustic guitar. Singers Maira Myles, Dailen Harris, and Britney Freeman (joined by Heuer, Erin Wolf, and Collections Of Colonies Of Bees’ Chris Rosenau) transformed “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “Wanna Be Your Lover,” and “Adore” into smoky, jazzy vocal pieces—the latter taking on additional weight with an extended tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. Oedipus Tex solo singer-songwriter Eric Caldera followed suit with hushed renditions of “When You Were Mine,” “Pop Life,” and “When Doves Cry.”
Though the opening performances were all accomplished and well-rendered, the show truly came alive with the one-two punch of Klassik and Marielle Allschwang performing “Love Song”; and Mark Waldoch and the Tontine Ensemble performing “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Kiss,” and “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Klassik slowly constructed the Prince-Madonna “Love Song” from a series of vocal and drum loops, eventually giving way to a dynamite vocal performance from Allschwang. Waldoch, meanwhile, brought the crowd to its feet multiple times with crazed, unhinged takes on three of Prince’s biggest hits. (The five-piece Tontine Ensemble delightfully handled the little guitar lick on “Kiss.”)
There were plenty of other highlights and surprises. Alverno Presents newcomers New Boyz Club turned in a funky and lively post-intermission set of “Head,” “Old Friends 4 Sale,” and “The Marrying Kind,” with Johanna Rose successfully going for broke on vocals. Alverno Presents vet Rosenau transmuted “I Would Die 4 U” into a pulsating post-rock sculpture using only his guitar and a phalanx of pedals. Jayh Johnson gave a cool and cutting reading of “America,” and returned for the show’s penultimate song, “Purple Rain,” leading the entire “Prince Uncovered” ensemble in a crowd-pleasing finale. D’Amato, meanwhile, handled the less-than-subtle “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” relishing the song’s vocal histrionics and its inherent sexiness. Hello Death closed the show with a haunting-yet-beautiful interpretation of “7”—a “little prayer that Prince wrote,” according to Heuer.
It’s easy, post-show, to armchair quarterback a production like “Prince Uncovered” and mentally tinker with its flow and song selection. But the fact that an evening that boasted such a dynamic assemblage of artists came together at all is a testament to both the trust of Alverno Presents and the raw talent (and good taste) of the curating band. (A suggestion: While the promotional materials for the show—featuring photos of Hello Death—were pretty, they gave no indication of the diversity and eclecticism contained in the final show. Perhaps a second campaign featuring more of the artists would be a good idea?)
There’s an old Chris Rock joke about the long-ago rivalry between Prince and Michael Jackson. After rattling off a list of Jackson’s peculiarities and legal woes, Rock simply states, “Prince won.” “Prince Uncovered” did, too.