Piano & A Microphone 1983
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‘You can please all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’
That old adage first coined by 14th Century monk John Lydgate and later honed by Abraham Lincoln is good advice to live a life by, but rarely has it seemed more apt than it does when considering the posthumous legacy recordings of Prince Rogers Nelson.
Having been taken from us before anyone was ready, it is a herculean and almost impossible task to decide what sees the light of day from his fabled and embarrassingly full vault of renown. When it was announced that this “new” album of recordings would be released, it was met with the usual (for Prince fans) mix of excitement, distrust in the people overseeing his legacy and disappointment that more of it wasn’t completely unknown.
Michael Howe, the man responsible for the enviable task of sorting through the vast swathes of material left by the genius’ demise, has selected a brief but fascinating set of musings on the piano from 1983 that had circulated among bootleggers for many a year. By selecting this, he attempts to make a link to the final tour of Prince’s career when he wowed audiences with his extraordinary catalogue and only the titular piano and microphone—bringing it full circle if you will.
The overriding impression left by the album is a sense of poignancy, a feeling only heightened by the intimacy of the unaccompanied works. On album opener “17 Days” you first hear some instructions to the engineer present, which serves to set the scene perfectly. Alone, likely in the half-light, Prince breathes extra heartbreak into a song that in its full iteration drips in misery. Such a sparse rendition in such unique circumstances makes it a triumph.
A brief, but deeply affecting, snippet of “Purple Rain” and his go to Joni Mitchell cover “A Case Of You” follow before his powerful version (heard at the end of Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed recent film BlacKkKlansman) of spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” takes center stage. In listening, it is hard to understand why his vocal talents rarely get a mention in discussion of his catalogue. Maybe it’s just the sheer embarrassment of riches he possessed, but here he whoops, soars and dives down to depths, showing his voice to be as soul-filled and utterly spellbinding as his devotees have always known.
An early version of 1987’s “Strange Relationship” pops up as a rough, sketched out version, whilst still retaining its thumping piano riff and 1982’s “International Lover” meanders in and out with Prince’s falsetto navigating the way. “Wednesday” is the song that Jill Jones sang for Purple Rain before it got cut and here he retains the lyrics about suicide—which makes it a kick in the gut performed in these circumstances.
But the final two tracks on this slender 35-minute album are the ones likely to generate the most interest, as they are the least well known to most Prince fans of the songs on offer. “Cold Coffee and Cocaine” is a jittery, stop-start piece of funk that Camille or Bob George would delight in popping out and, like all the best grooves, it feels like it could go for days. Final track “Why The Butterflies” with its finger snaps and somber piano keeps things simple but, again, his voice is quite magnificent, turning this way and that, and hitting every emotional note perfectly.
I’ve always maintained that there should be a chronology about these posthumous releases, but this release feels right at this time and place. Maybe it’s the fact that we are a mere two years down the line from his passing and that it still seems ridiculous to be having to think about music without him. Maybe it’s the fact that it catches him loose, freeform and on the cusp of global superstardom with Purple Rain.
For me though, it is the privilege of feeling the intimacy of the performance in those simple conditions that really connects. How other hardcore fans or newcomers lured in by his music streaming on all platforms will receive it is their business. But it is worth remembering that given the tangled web of legalities surrounding the estate, we should be grateful for anything that comes our way, especially something as lovely as this moment in time preserved for posterity.
Notable Tracks: “17 Days” | “Cold Coffee and Cocaine” | “Mary Don’t You Weep”