by Kelly Fahey
A Vagabond Saints’ Society show is essentially Winston-Salem’s version of The Last Waltz. VSS acts as a backing band, using classic popular albums or bands as their platform, as a myriad of veteran Triad area musicians trot onstage to elaborate on the theme.
Last Thursday night, VSS tackled Prince’s magnum opus Purple Rain at the Garage, in celebration of the album and film’s 30th anniversary. The band was commissioned to do the show by Jigar Desai, co-owner of A/perture Cinema, which corresponded with a screening of the rock opera at his theater.
Covering Prince is a heavy task. The guy sings like Michael Jackson, plays guitar like Jimi Hendrix and dances like James Brown. On top of that, Purple Rain is what most people consider to be his crowning achievement. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were fit for the task.
The verdict: Only Prince can be Prince, but the Vagabond Saints’ Society certainly did not disappoint. Jerry Chapman, Doug Davis and Randall Johnson have mastered their craft. Still, the goal is not to be Prince, and VSS is not a tribute band.
“Our general approach is that we as a band present the music in as close to the original format as possible, but we encourage our guest performers to put their own spin on it,” said Doug Davis, keyboardist of the Vagabond Saints’ Society.
The same goes for all of their tribute shows, which have run the gamut from more contemporary acts like REM and Nick Cave to classics like Van Morrison and the Beatles.
Their Purple Rain performance included a hauntingly beautiful rendition of the title track “Purple Rain” sung in a soulful, low register by Lauren Myers. Myers is a drummer first, and has performed with the likes of the Allison King Band.
Before the main attraction came a slew of Triad musicians, mostly playing acoustic guitars, paying tribute to the rest of Prince’s catalogue, including classics like “Raspberry Beret,” “Little Red Corvette” and a hyper-sexualized version of his 1980 song “Head” performed by Stephen Corbett, who was wearing the classic Prince get-up with his hair in curls and a pencil-thin mustache. It was almost like the real thing.
While the electrifying energy of Prince is nearly impossible to capture with an acoustic guitar, each performer had an interesting, noteworthy take on their chosen track.
Davis recalls his first experience with Purple Rain, an album of which he admittedly was not an immediate fan.
“On my 17th birthday, my girlfriend dragged me out to the theater to see the movie,” said Davis. “It really wasn’t my thing at the time.”
Needless to say, he eventually came around.
VSS’s motto is community. I slowly started to realize that the audience and the performers were literally one, as people that I had no idea were performing walked out of the crowd and got up on stage to sing a song.
“There are several different reasons that we do this, one of which is for it to be a community networking project,” said Davis. “More bands and projects have been started from people that have played together at VSS shows, and that’s something we’re really proud of.”
While VSS may only be three veterans of the Triad music scene, each of their live shows are gargantuan affairs with anywhere from 20 to even 50 of their peers performing alongside of them. According to Davis, Purple Rain was small in comparison some of their other shows, which is hard to believe recalling the sold- out Garage, which was standing-room only.