November 17, 2014
Some venues set out pitchers of water for concertgoers, while others might offer a free coat check or complimentary pair of earplugs. Out in Chanhassen, Paisley Park has figured out its own way to provide a perk to fans who have made the trek out for a show—it involves a little bait and switch, some purple fog, and a couple of guitar solos from the man of the house, Prince.
On Saturday night, after a mesmerizing hour-long performance from the inventive U.K. artist FKA twigs, the roughly 150 people in attendance were treated to an experience straight out of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: when the concert ended two sections of the wall swung open to expose the larger of Paisley Park’s two soundstages, which was glowing with purple lights and seething with fog and all set up with Prince’s signature microphone stand and 3RDEYEGIRL’s drum set and gear. Several members of the audience actually shrieked with delight—like my friend Erick, who clasped his hands onto my shoulders and giggled gleefully—as we wandered into the adjoining room and pressed up in front of the stage to take in a little bonus set from Prince himself. Talk about an encore.
But let’s not bury the lede, here: Although the showy grand finale by His Purpleness definitely slathered some icing on the cake, the star of the night was FKA twigs, who kept the small audience rapt throughout her enthralling set.
It has practically become lore at this point that the artist who is known off stage as Tahliah Barnett earned the nickname twigs because of how loudly her joints crack when she dances, and as I watched her performance I found this anecdote returning to the front of my mind again and again. There is indeed something skeletal about twigs’ music, especially the way her spare beats creak forward and then slow to an ominous tap-tap-tap. A big part of what makes her sound so singular is that she doesn’t rely on traditional percussion sounds like snare or toms to build her rhythmic structures—her compositions are punctuated by dry, unnerving clicks that sound like clavicles beating on rib bones and tibias—and the effect is downright eerie.
Her dance movements, too, seem to emanate from her bones. As her backing band pounded on electronic drum pads and laid down spindly bass guitar parts behind her, twigs would sweep her arms up above her head and rotate her wrists dramatically as if she was stretching and cracking and preparing for the ultimate grand jeté.
And although her music certainly combines elements of hip-hop, soul, and pop music, what stood out the most in such an intimate setting was just how sparse and careful her compositions are. As with her physical movements and beats, there was a precision and a restraint to her vocal delivery that was mesmerizing to watch in person. Twigs is clearly a gifted vocalist; her range spans a few octaves, and she navigates between high and low registers without flinching. But what was most intriguing to me was that she very rarely let her voice ring out at its fullest, and when she finally did—toward the end of one of her best songs, “Pendulum”—the effect was stunning.
As twigs performed at Paisley she was observed by Prince and his 3RDEYEGIRL band, who sat on a stuffed purple couch up on a balcony at the back of the room, and Prince was sure to jump to his feet at the end of the set and shake each of FKA twigs’ musicians’ hands as they filed off stage. Afterwards, as if energized by the performance, he joined the audience in the adjoining room to tear through the fiercest version of “Let’s Go Crazy” I’d ever heard, starting out with the swampy, bluesy version he’s worked up with 3RDEYEGIRL and laying into a guitar-fueled jam that he played with his mouth wide open and his axe up over his head. After a 15-minute break, he returned to play the Zeppelin-channeling “Plectrumelectrum” and Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” then after another hour he returned for the classic “Kiss” with FKA twigs joining him on stage to dance.
Prince has clearly been enjoying the energy swirling around Paisley Park after recent visits from groundbreaking new artists like Kendrick Lamar and twigs, and these recent forays show that he’s more plugged in to what’s happening in contemporary music than he’s been in decades. Let’s hope he keeps it up—each new show in the Paisley Park After Dark series seems to get more and more exciting.