Nightshift is an annual Labor Day party thrown by the heads of local labor groups under the banner of Working Californians for several years now, and with its customary $20 price for general admission, it’s become one of the best values for the SoCal concertgoer. This year’s lineup was typically eclectic but tilted heavily to the kind of music that sounds great on a summer festival field. And it had the advantage of taking place on the first overcast, breezy day following a two-week heatwave, prompting a noticeable sense of relief among the show goers.
We arrived at 5pm, having missed two local favorites in Ozomatli and Poncho Sanchez (it’s okay, something tells me both will play again in LA during my lifetime), but in time for Big Sam’s Funky Nation, who were dropping slabs of earth-moving funk with ease. These guys specialize in loud, horn-punching, electric music that demands a physical response. It was precisely the band I’d have hired for a beer and barbecue gathering in the park, Meters and Funkadelic covers with originals in the same vein.
It was a cool scene, with food trucks for all tastes, short lines for most amenities and wide open spaces for ticket holders to spread out with good sight lines to the stage and a clear, powerful PA system. I spotted Craig Robinson dancing to old school at the DJ booth.
The arrival of the Revolution onstage, over the familiar opening drum beat to “Computer Blue” provoked a roar of recognition from the crowd. There they were, the actual Wendy and Lisa, mutually agreeing on the appropriateness of the water temperature before launching a set of Prince classics from his most-beloved era of 1983-86 (Purple Rain, give or take a few years) with the band that sometimes played on those records and always gave him a solid backing on the concert stage. Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Bobby Z, Dr. Matt Fink, and Brownmark were joined by Mint Condition singer Stokely Williams, who took lead vocals on about half the set.
I expected it to be emotional hearing these songs live again, and it was, for them and us. I was holding it together through the opening segment that included the rarely-performed “America” and “Mountains”, noting how razor sharp they still sounded, thinking Wendy and Brownmark were doing a fine job covering the singing. Technically, it was working out, and everyone was grooving. I loved that they were doing some of my favorite songs that Prince himself rarely if ever did himself.
Then they hit the intro to “Take Me With U”, which Prince did play live more often than not when I saw him, and I lost it. It still seems so inconceivable, a year and a half after his death, that he’ll never direct us to sing that bridge again. When Prince told people to do something, they did it. There used to be a moment in every show of his, where I became conscious of the crowd as this organism grooving together as one. So I left the photo pit to go out among the people and feel that collective vibe again. And as they launched into “Erotic City”, I started to feel better. The man himself may be gone but the collective hip-shake that takes place when that song comes over the PA will live on for a long time.
From that point on, it was hit after hit, with frequent audience singalongs. Melvoin’s frequent guitar features were a real treat, keeping us on the razor’s edge through that nerve-pinching guitar break from “Kiss.” Coleman and Fink traded lead and rhythm lines seamlessly, and all the keyboard geeks sighed when Fink did that insane, Rick Wakeman-esque solo at the climax of “When Doves Cry”. Brownmark’s deep, throbbing basslines were the most difficult aspect of his 80s sound for Prince’s later bands to emulate, and it’s such a pleasure to hear them thumping out of a festival PA.
Williams did a fine job, singing his parts with the right mix of confidence and understatement, not trying to emulate Prince’s move or dazzle with footwork. It’s as demanding a job for a lead singer as I can think of in this day and age, and he has my respect for pulling it off.
As the sun set over Grant Park, Grace Potter took the stage for only the second time this year. I last saw Potter opening for Robert Plant at the Shrine in 2013, where she left the impression of a strong singer and multi-instrumentalist with great ability but who had yet to articulate a vision outside of extreme competence. Her set here felt more unified, and it was possible to hear the unique voice tying these diverse influences together. Although I still find her highly likable but not quite lovable, I’m willing to keep the conversation open and see where it goes.