When Prince died in 2016 at the age of 57, he was hailed as a genius. This was the quirky, restless, uniquely creative mastermind behind Purple Rain, Sign O’ The Times, oodles of hit songs, and hell, even that Batman soundtrack. Prince was…Prince, you know? There hadn’t been anyone like him during his lifetime, and there wouldn’t be anyone like him ever again.
When I saw Prince play the Marcus Amphitheater during Summerfest 2001, he was hailed as, well, just another Summerfest headliner. That’s not to say he wasn’t greeted with rapturous applause and screams of devotion from the amphitheater full of fervent fans, but 2001-era Prince wasn’t exactly at the height of his fame. Purple Rain was almost 20 years old. The ’90s had been filled with increasingly impenetrable records and a prolonged battle with Warner Brothers. There was the whole “unpronounceable symbol-name” thing. The exact date of this Summerfest show was June 28, 2001. Prince had just turned 43 years old.
I went to the show with two people who absolutely adored Prince: my high school girlfriend, who had become my ex-girlfriend a year prior (we remain friends to this day—hi, Nicki!), and my mother (she remains my mother to this day—hi, mom!) I adored Prince, too, though I recognized him more as a Big Star, a Consummate Artist, and the guy who did that Batman soundtrack. I liked a lot of his songs. He had always been around, up to something. Sure, the Prince I was going to see wouldn’t be Purple Rain Prince, but he would still be Prince. Plus, dude could shred.
I wish I could give you my thoughts on Prince’s setlist that day. (You can find that setlist HERE.) I wish I could share an amusing anecdote or a left-field insight about the show. But, incredibly, only two things stick out in my mind. The first had to do with that whole “unpronounceable symbol-name” thing, which Prince had recently dropped:
“What’s my name?” Prince asked near the top of the show. “PRINCE!” screamed the crowd. “I like that. Haven’t heard it in a while,” he replied.
The other thing I remember is that when it came to the hits, Prince only played snippets of each song. Yep, just bits and pieces from “Raspberry Beret,” “When Doves Cry,” “Little Red Corvette,” and the like. I think the encore was capped with a full version of “Purple Rain,” though I can’t be sure.
Either way, I had a nice time with my ex-girlfriend and my mom. It was a good show. My memories of it quickly faded away.
When Prince died in 2016, I suddenly remembered this show, and felt guilty for not remembering more of it. I had seen Prince! Live! Shouldn’t it have been one of the Greatest Concert Experiences Of My Life? What was wrong with me?
But when I think of the show now, I’m weirdly glad that it lives on only as a vague memory. I’m glad that I was alive and kicking during a time when seeing Prince—Prince!—was no big deal. I’m glad that something (sadly) impossible now was so ordinary and attainable back then. Hell, Prince would probably play Summerfest again in a few years. (He did, in 2004.)
Similar to Tom Petty, there’s a lesson to be learned here: see the artists you love as many times as you can, no matter where they happen to be in their careers. If a particular show becomes the Greatest Concert Experience Of Your Life, terrific. If it becomes just another vague memory in an increasingly dense cloud of shows and concerts and music and noise, well, you were still there. You still saw them. You still said their name.
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