Although there will never be another Prince, Purple Reign delivers an authentic experience that captures the magic and the music of the artist formerly and forever known as the Purple One. In the dynamic tribute show Purple Reign, Jason Tenner is more than a Prince impersonator. His performance transports audiences back to 1984 when The Kid broke barriers and firmly established his place in the cultural lexicon.
Purple Reign with Tenner and featuring special guest performers such as Morris Day, Jerome Benton, Apollonia and Vanity is presented by the FSCJ Artist Series one night only, May 3rd, at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.
EU Jacksonville spoke with Tenner about the surprising longevity of his Vegas tribute show, its emotional impact on the fans, and the music that connects it all together.
“When we started out, we were bent on being successful working musicians. So, we always had a business plan in mind with the way that we approached it. I never thought the Prince thing would have taken over the biggest amount of time and energy. Not at all,” says Tenner of the Las Vegas residence show. “We became successful, and even though there was a little dip when the economy took a turn in 2007 or 2008, we made it through it, and we’re still here.”
Now more than 20 years later, Purple Reign continues to keep the spirit of Prince alive with an homage to the music that helped define a generation. Tenner embodies Prince with the swagger, the musicianship, and the raw sensuality of the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. This is no lip sync battle or karaoke show. Like Prince, these guys can play.
“Prince was quoted as saying, ‘My mike is on. My guitar is on. All the instruments are on.’ We all play, and we do our best to keep it very authentic. As they say, keep it greasy,” laughs Tenner. “There are no recorded tracks on stage. With the choreography and the costuming, I think it’s as close as it gets.”
While Prince went through many different revolutions in his artistry, the era depicted in the film Purple Rain serves as the central focus of this show. Tenner said the period reflects the moment when Prince blazed in like a comet to become a star.
“I think that during that time it was like all of the stars lined up. Michael Jackson was huge, and the whole decadent 80’s thing when Prince hopped in the scene with his high heels and thongs, and the music was new and fresh. It wasn’t pop, but it was definitely different,” Tenner recalls. “At first, I think people were like, ‘What the heck is this?’ I think it took them a little time to figure it out. I think it took Prince a moment to figure it out, what he was doing, but once he did, that was it.”
The music in Purple Reign extends beyond the film’s score and digs deep into the Prince catalog. But the show’s title track is the showstopper that brings audiences to their knees night after night. “People really, really love that song, and we do everything we can to really sink into that,” says Tenner. “People come up to us crying on a regular basis. That song really moves them in an emotional way.”
Growing up, Tenner wasn’t a huge fan of Prince. He saw the movie Purple Rain but Apollonia made a bigger impression on him as a 10-year-old kid than the musician. In 1996, he dressed as Prince for Halloween, and that marked the beginning of something big.
While performing with funk tribute outfit The Mothership Convention, the band added a few Prince songs into the set. It wasn’t until Tenner started incorporating the mannerisms and choreography into his performance that he was able to grasp the magnitude of Prince as an artist.
“I didn’t really know anything about him until I started to do the tribute show. It’s amazing how much stuff he wrote at that age and at that time. For the first few albums, he played everything on those records. It’s pretty amazing for someone that young and at that time,” marvels Tenner. “These days most musicians can play bass, drums, keyboard, and guitar. Everybody plays everything because of the laptop revolution and studio tools. You can program a high-hat by holding down a button. He didn’t have any of that. When you listen to the record, and you think that’s just one dude, it’s mind-blowing.”
Despite his diminutive frame, Prince always appeared to be larger than life. Tenner recalls the power of seeing Prince perform live. Whether at a massive concert venue or an intimate crowd of only 60 people, the energy, emotion and artistry were unmatched. Tenner had the opportunity to speak with him on a handful of occasions early into the show’s existence, and while he prefers not to reveal the details of his conversation, he remembers being struck by an otherworldly presence.
“He was a very different personality. It was very surreal. The conversation was strange, but very cool,” he remembers. “He talked about profane spiritual ideas and sexuality. He liked to play with people. It was pretty wild.”
It’s impossible for Tenner to forget April 21, 2016, when he heard the news that Prince had passed away at his Paisley Park home. Shock and grief rippled through the band, but it was a show night, and they took to the stage in his honor. “I remember exactly. That was a rough walk. I was so emotionally torn up. I’d never been upset when a celebrity or anyone I didn’t know had died,” says Tenner. “I didn’t know Prince. I’d met him and talked to him once or twice, but it felt like I’d lost someone close probably because for so many years of singing his music and studying his character, it felt like I did know him. I think a lot of fans felt like that because he was so open and honest with everything he said.”
Tenner and the band delivered an emotionally raw performance of Purple Reign to a packed house in Las Vegas that night. Then at midnight, dressed in street clothes and stripped of the stage persona, they opened the walls and returned to the stage for hours where they continued to perform “everything we knew” in a collective grief with the hundreds of fans gathered to pay their respects.
“It was difficult. My musical director basically cried during the entire show. Just speaking about it now is very difficult,” he recalls. “It was really electric and very emotional. The whole crowd was with us.”
A tribute show like Purple Reign feels right at home in a city like Las Vegas, but achieving success on the road was an affirmation for Tenner that the fans want to remember and relive the music of Prince, and he is grateful to be part of the shared experience.