We can’t be certain, but it’s a fairly safe bet that 14 months ago tonight wouldn’t be the huge deal on Belfast’s social calendar that it is. Tribute acts – popular as they are – have never been cool and have tended to attract an older crowd, a crowd that remember the singles first time round and want to spend a night happily reminiscing rather than take a plane and spend a small mortgage-worth to see a stadium show. You’d be stuck at the back, wouldn’t you? They grumble. Not able to see the whites of your favourite singer’s eyes. And so this would have been the crowd 14 months ago, people happy to remember for a discount price while the die-hard fans sought out tickets for Prince’s 2016 ‘Piano And A Microphone’ tour.
But then Prince died on April 21st 2016 and along with the death of Bowie on 10th January that year, this changed the nature of tribute audiences. These artists were current, relevant. Their songs are played at indie discos, and not necessarily retro ones. We could recall them creating in our living memory. Could have bought tickets to see them. Watched them age before our eyes instead of being born into awareness with them already old, already old hat and old-fashioned. Recent screenings of the ‘Purple Rain’ movie in QFT helped to pique the curiosity. Will the fake Prince have that much energy? Will he ooze as much terrifying sex appeal? Will he jump off speaker stacks in heels? Of course, he shouldn’t do that as Prince caused himself lifelong back pain from too much jumping but… we’d quite like to see fake Prince jump, all the same.
A synth chord thrums loudly, resonating throughout the room. The 9 piece act appear and Jimi Love – our Prince for the evening – utters the words “Dearly beloved” sounding quite as much like Prince as you would expect him to, which is really quite a lot although more when speaking than singing. There really wasn’t any other way they could start. And it’s high energy right from the beginning. Upbeat song melds into upbeat song seamlessly, pauses for applause only occurring every three songs or so. ‘1999’ and ‘Controversy’ bringing the party in the first half hour but if anything, there’s a worry that it will be all party. Prince wouldn’t be Prince without a little mood and shade to balance the light and it’s not until ‘Little Red Corvette’ that we see it, a certain quiet moment and stripping back of instrumentation allowing us to hear that Love actually has a, well, lovely vocal tone. The stripping back we expect to continue in ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ doesn’t happen though, a little too much cheese with the saxophone making it a touch too much Michael Bolton rather than the understated Sinead O’Connor version we in the UK are used to. The crowd are delighted for a chance to karaoke though and they do so along with singer Emma Blakk who gets a chance to really express herself. In fact, the whole band get fair shots at everything, being regularly and repeatedly introduced and named by Love who welcomes them soloing and the crowd laps it up: trumpet, saxophone, tenor sax and bass alternately taking the spotlight and meandering across the stage at different points proving their musicality. At one point Love swaps places with Amanda Brown on drums so she can take lead vocals on a song while he proves himself a competent drummer.
A muddiness in the rhythm section makes certain songs lose something though. ‘Alphabet Street’ is almost unrecocognisable until the vocals start and ‘Gett Off’ is lacking some funk purely because of this. At times we’re left wondering if the bassist is actually playing until we see his fingers and realise he’s been left incredibly low in the mix, the drums too sounding a little suffocated. This provides startling clarity for Love’s excellently executed guitar solos, brass is as clear as it should be and the occasional keytar burst is like a shock of cold water on a hot day but we can’t help thinking what the party might have been with a more balanced mix.
As for Love, once we stop watching him like a hawk for discrepancies with the real thing we can see what he’s doing right. Looks wise he’s a little more Prince via Steve Guttenberg but his screams in ‘The Beautiful Ones’ and ‘Guitar’ are vocally challenging and seemingly effortless. He’s not as predatory or sexually upfront as Prince was, preferring a more lighthearted style and never quite taking himself seriously, but he definitely sails safely past likeable and believable, maybe not as Prince, but definitely as our entertainer tonight.
So there were costume changes, replica guitars [the white Cloud Guitar from the ‘Purple Rain’ film, the purple Symbol Guitar for – what else? – ‘Purple Rain’ and most other songs played on the Hohner TE], band cameraderie, hit after hit and no, Jimi Love didn’t jump off any speaker stacks. But given that we know that didn’t do Prince any favours in the long run, it’s probably for the best.