“Hometown!” Prince proclaimed whenever he played the Twin Cities.
Whether it was one of the big sports arenas or the old bus depot that became First Avenue, the Purple One seemed more comfortable onstage here than he did in other cities. He talked more, smiled more, experimented more.
To commemorate the second anniversary of his passing, we dug into the Star Tribune archives and unearthed dozens of unpublished concert photographs showing a relaxed, playful side that fans in other cities seldom got to see. We think of it as Prime-Time Prince — those days in the 1980s when he’d play hometown concerts before taking his band on the road.
“Good evening,” said Prince on a night in March 1986 as he greeted a crowd packed into First Avenue in Minneapolis. “We’ve only been rehearsing about a week. We’re going to try to play everything that we know tonight. So some of it might be a little rusty. If some of it ain’t right, we’ll come back and play next week and get it right.”
He then tore through an ambitious 24-song set with, for the first time, a horn section and backup dancers. Prince was as loose and fun as ever. Wearing an oversized white overcoat, he walked through the crowd and even sat in the audience, listening to the band play his dreamy ballad “Paisley Park.”
These were the kind of things he later would do routinely at the Chanhassen studio he opened in 1987 and named for that song. But our photographers weren’t allowed at Paisley parties.
Now retired, Star Tribune photographer David Brewster shot many of the singer’s shows during the pre-Paisley days.
“Prince never said a word to me,” he recalls. “But I remember some pictures where he was looking directly at me.”
It was a time of black-and-white film and inferior printing presses. Brewster found it challenging to get a concert shot in focus with the right lighting to reveal detail on the paper’s newsprint.
His goal was to get “one image with a spark of life.” The rest were filed away — which is how some of Brewster’s negatives went unnoticed for 30-plus years.
At Paisley, Prince never allowed photographers unless they were hired by him. That way he could better control his image. There were no such restrictions in the days when the fast-rising star used First Avenue to rehearse in front of an audience for tours behind his “Controversy,” “Purple Rain,” “Parade” and “Sign o’ the Times” projects. He had a habit of introducing unrecorded material in hometown performances.
Famously, many of the songs that would be heard in “Purple Rain” were first performed live at First Avenue on Aug. 3, 1983, during a fundraiser for the Minnesota Dance Theatre, whose staff coached the movie’s cast. As guitarist Wendy Melvoin made her debut with his band the Revolution, Prince — with padded shoulders and cascading curls — introduced “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Computer Blue” and, of course, “Purple Rain.” The new rock-oriented sound caught the somewhat unresponsive full house by surprise.
After filming much of “Purple Rain” at First Avenue, he returned to the club on June 7, 1984 — his 25th birthday — for his first show in 10 months. Prince was in a good, hometown mood. Once again he introduced new material, including “17 Days” and “Erotic City.” He played only one song from the movie, his current single “When Doves Cry.”
“Because it’s my birthday, we’re just gonna get up here and we’re just gonna make a little music for you to party by,” His Royal Badness announced casually, a purple bandanna covering one eye. “If y’all came here expecting to drive Prince’s ‘Little Red Corvette,’ that’s not gonna work. We’re just going to play some other numbers. Some of them you’ll know, but most of ’em you won’t.”
Seven weeks later, he would be in Hollywood for the premiere of the film that would make him a superstar. But in spirit he never really left his hometown.
During a surprise appearance at the now defunct Minnesota Music Awards in 1986, Prince appeared humbled as he approached the podium at Bloomington’s Carlton Celebrity Room, where Gov. Rudy Perpich was waiting to present him with a special prize.
“This is indeed a great honor and a pleasant surprise,” said the Grammy- and Oscar-winner, who added three Minnies that night before closing the program with a midriff-baring 40-minute performance. “Awhile back, I wrote a song that said I didn’t care to win awards. Of course, I wasn’t up for any. I’ve gotten a few since then. The ones I get from you are the best, because I know that when the dream factory plays out in L.A., I can always come back and hang out with you guys.”
Staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this report.