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Review: Jesse Johnson at Bunker’s wraps up the emotional Prince anniversary

Jesse Johnson performs at Bunker's on April 21, 2017. Photo by Steve Cohen for MPR.
Jesse Johnson performs at Bunker's on April 21, 2017. Photo by Steve Cohen for MPR.

by Cecilia Johnson

April 22, 2017

WOW. I say this partly because I spent a lot of Friday thinking about 3RDEYEGIRL, who recorded a song with that title for PLECTRUMELECTRUM (2014). Partly because Jesse Johnson’s show at Bunker’s last night put me through almost every emotion there is. But mostly, it’s because at the end of the one-year anniversary of Prince’s death, I’m glad we made it.

I spent most of April 21 at the office, reading, writing, and producing stories about Prince’s incredible life. Love from around the globe popped up on my screens, and I got to work with people every ounce as generous as Prince. But being so busy during the day, I missed out on a lot of the music. So when I got to Bunker’s for Johnson’s show, I settled in to soak it up.

As the story goes, Bunker’s was one of Prince’s favorite venues in town, along with the Dakota Jazz Club. Having just been at the latter two nights before, I reveled at the stark difference in ambiance. Where the Dakota had dim, gentle lighting and a high ceiling, Bunker’s was all fairy lights and neon. Instead of a host in a suit, I greeted a bouncer in board shorts. It made me think about the different sides of Prince’s personality: the jazz/funk aficionado and the rock ‘n’ roll adventurer.

Alex Rossi of Root City opened the night with about an hour of rock, funk, and reggae-rock. His band play Bunker’s every Wednesday, sometimes with New Power Generation bassist Sonny Thompson. Energetic and well-rehearsed, they got the crowd moving early with Prince’s “Musicology” and powered through until closer “Tear the Roof off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)” by Parliament.

Jesse Johnson walked on stage with a bedazzled guitar and a "what will the night bring?" attitude. He went the first three songs without singing, encouraging the crowd to take over vocals on “Purple Rain” (which he said he was inspired to play after hearing it on The Current that evening) and “When You Were Mine.” Throughout his set, Johnson played several originals, including “I Want My Girl,” “Crazay (feat. Sly Stone)," “She (I Can’t Resist),” and “Black In America.” One woman turned to her partner behind me, saying, “See? There’s a reason he was on my wall in high school.”

“Special guests” were reportedly on the table when this show was announced, but aside from his band (a keyboardist/saxophonist and a drummer), the only guest Johnson brought up was the bassist from the opening band. “Where’s Ryan?” he asked. “The bass player?” They jammed for a while, sounding like Chuck Berry near the end of their time — “That’s for you, Chuck Berry,” Johnson said into the microphone — before Ryan headed back into the crowd.

The music was good at Bunker's last night, all the way up to a final "Controversy"-inspired jam and solo, which took us to 1 a.m. But just being through the long, heavy day felt best. It's now time to gear up for the round of tributes tonight.

(Nate Ryan | MPR)
(Nate Ryan | MPR)
(Nate Ryan | MPR)
(Steve Cohen for MPR)
(Steve Cohen for MPR)
(Steve Cohen for MPR)
(Steve Cohen for MPR)
(Steve Cohen for MPR)
(Steve Cohen for MPR)
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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.