Next Level Events & The Art of the Prince Tribute

It’s the two-year anniversary of the passing of the legend Prince Rogers Nelson. In honor of the legacy he wove over a lifetime, we’re celebrating a group that loves to bring musicians together in tribute. Next Level Events even just this year has produced three different Prince tribute performances, directed by Khari Cabral Simmons, and held at Venkman’s supper club in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. Three more are already scheduled for June.

Audiences continue to show up, and I’ll speak for us all, always appreciate hearing there’s more to come, as a thirst for the music of the “Beethoven of our time” proves unquenchable. Simmons himself participates in additional Prince music events, such as ATL Collective’s ‘Sign O’ the Times’ complete album performance at Buckhead Theater last March. Atlanta has a distinct purple landscape, including multiple impersonator-type tributes, such as Purple Madness, who grace area audiences with a loving illusion we happily take on for a few hours — that we haven’t actually lost this man.

The knowledge that we’ll never hear additions to Prince’s catalogue perhaps propels our willingness to repeatedly journey back with these artists into the canon’s recesses, nooks and common spaces with relish. We again and again realize that it’s even deeper than we were conscious of — that this prolific genius had been actively charming us for a forty year span that no one night of entertainment could exemplify.

Madhouse: The Jazz of Prince | A Tribute at Venkman's
Today we’ll explore three NLE events in particular, all helmed by Khari Cabral Simmons as Music Director, and talk about NLE’s background, and what’s to come. It’s my favorite spice of life to have things to look forward to. Thank you, oh so deeply, Next Level Events, for being a major component of what makes the Atlanta music scene spicy.

Ladies of Prince, A Prince Tribute | January, 2018

Next Level Events founder and Managing Director, Craig M. Garrett, got hooked bad at young age, carried away in the tide of his sister’s listenings to Prince albums. He went with his family to see the Purple Rain Tour. After performing “Free” in a 360 degree theater with a young Craig seated near the seeming rear of the stage, Prince exited and threw his tambourine to the boy, cementing a fan for life.

Later, being happenstance friends with NPG keyboardist Morris Hayes, Craig was invited to concerts at Paisley Park. [Note: And yeah, where my jaw was on the floor at the first anecdote, I’m now nearly fainting]. He went often, and the invitations continued over the years expanding to tour stops around the country, etcetera. He had even attended the inaugural Piano & a Microphone Tour performance of Prince’s last tour, at Paisley. [Note: I’m now unconscious. And so grateful for Libro Musica’s Antonius Maximus Rex, who recorded almost two hours of Prince’s final performance and wrote about it here.] 

It’s no wonder that such close and prolonged proximity to this exciting artist, and the trappings and colleagues and protege of his career, would influence and inspire someone to do great and greatly creative things. A particularly charming side of Prince was that he had a habit of, perhaps a mission, regarding the taking-on of talented female protégés (often multi-talented), and of involving, working with, supporting, and writing for women.

What a concept — put together a night of songs Prince had written for, duetted with, covered by, women. And pull in incredible local female songstress talent to do it.

The Crew

Making It Happen

Bringing a show like this Prince tribute together involves Khari sitting down with Craig, and their mutual serious knowledge of the Prince catalogue, to go over Craig’s envisioned set list. Khari will develop what he thinks is needed in terms of vocalists and musicians to bring the vision of the concept across, and bring it to Craig’s table for review. They will decide which songs fit each singer, then Khari will engage the performers and schedule and run rehearsals, and work with adjustments and fine-tuning, while Craig addresses venue relations and promotion.

There are artists like the singers from Atlanta’s world-famous cover band Yacht Rock Revue, who are pros that have either done these songs before, or they know how to learn these songs, get it down, and do it, because that’s what they do all the time. 

[Note: Khari played bass in the thoroughly enjoyable “Demolition Man: A Tribute to Sting & the Police” event with Yacht Rock Schooner (spawned from YRR) and others at The Vista Room, in March. More Sting music to come from Khari. Swoon!]  

As most vocalists have their own original material as priority though, Khari tends to limit lead vocal spots to two to three songs. This both makes the learning effort accomplishable for each guest artist, and exposes audiences to a wonderful variety of interpretations. He then seeks the song-to-singer matches where the singer identifies full-heartedly with each song.

With specific intention, songs are kept predominantly on course with the original pieces fans are familiar with, while making space for allowing a lane to open up for vocalists to showcase the strength of their vocal personality. The band, or singers, while maintaining “that Minneapolis pulse,” as Khari puts it, will riff off at times, taking liberties highlighting artistic abilities that can blow the roof off a place.

Divas are absolutely, very, welcome.

Set List | Ladies of Prince

Can you imagine?!? This was my first Next Level event, and the first time in a long time that I’d specifically bought a ticket to just go enjoy a performance. The journalist and promoter-of-fine-music-fare in me couldn’t help herself but make do with the only camera I had on me, and catch what sweet sweet entertainments I could on my mobile. I would end up introducing myself to Khari, meeting Craig too, and falling head-over-heels for what they do. And all this we’re talking about today — this is just their Prince stuff.

The Ladies of Prince, a Prince tribute, at Venkman's
Next Level Events present The Ladies of Prince, a Prince tribute, at Venkman’s, Jan 13, 2018

Madhouse: The Jazz of Prince | February, 2018

NLE’s sampling of Prince’s jazz composition albums tests the waters for audiences’ capacity to appreciate works of The Artist that weren’t designed for the pop nor R&B charts. Albums “8”, “16”, and “24” weren’t widely released, to the point that “24” is itself the domain of deep fandom. The verdict — there are more Madhouse experiences to come.

Madhouse: The Jazz of Prince | A Tribute at Venkman's
Musical Director, Khari Cabral Simmons & Next Level Events present Madhouse: The Jazz of Prince, at Venkman’s, Feb 11, 2018

Set List | Madhouse: The Jazz of Prince

A surprise (even to Mr. Simmons) addition to the evening was a jazz take on the funk pop hit “Controversy.” Perhaps fueled by the crush of an impending performance-event-heavy weekend, Khari had lucid-dreamed the arrangement during a nap the day prior. Proving the skill, joie de veuve, and carpe diem of the musicians collected, they ran with the eleventh hour task, and showed up.

This production company, Next Level Events, got its moniker from a fellow live music enthusiast on a Belize diving getaway, when the fantastically-named Kizzy Knight said to Craig M. Garrett, “That’s some next level shit you’re doing.” Seriously. No shit.

The Crew

Khari has been playing consistently with Chris Burroughs and Vinnie D’Agostino for over twenty years. It seemed an easy flow to work with Jez Graham, and it should have. In the summer of 1996, Khari found that he was a working musician. The Olympics were here in Atlanta, and he was playing in all kinds of capacities. In particular, there was a percussionist named Petro Bass. He saw Khari play somewhere and approached him about playing bass on some of his latin jazz shows, and Jez was his keyboard player. This Prince tribute marks their second time working together since prior to these last two decades.

[Note: The “Demolition Man” show I’ve mentioned here previously would become their third.]

Prince’s Album ‘Dirty Mind’ | March, 2018

Were you a fan when Dirty Mind was released? In 1980. Or did you, like me I’ll admit it (or Khari too), backtrack after Purple Rain (1984). Or, is it more the truth, now that I think of it, that while hits like “Uptown”, “Dirty Mind”, and “Head” filtered through, they didn’t make it to your own music library until you bought The Hits/The B-Sides, which ruined your CD player’s polyamory for a loooooonnnng time.

The first time Khari heard of Prince was on MTV (“1999,” and “Little Red Corvette”). But then, when Purple Rain (1984) came out…

Khari Cabral Simmons started playing bass around the age of twelve, circa Around the World in a Day (1985), then Parade (1986), and so on, and he played along. But there was treasure to discover when he found out about the underground market for Prince concerts and unreleased album bootlegs.

Soon he was taking his allowance and writing, for instance, “Please send me the 1999 tour, from December 2nd, 1982.” A month later, a couple of cassettes would show up, and so Khari started listening to Prince concerts, even rehearsals, like that. He hadn’t [I hadn’t!] realized that there was so much of this stuff recorded and out there. Khari collected way back then, tape after tape. As a bass player, that influence is absolutely there for him, but also that artist’s drive. He surmises that the standard for excellence for oneself probably also came from Prince.

When he gets to do a show like the “Dirty Mind” tribute, it means a lot. He remembers getting the CD in 1987, what it looked like, playing bass along with it. As time went on, Khari had singled Dirty Mind out as a serious pivot point for Prince.

“That punk, funk, sex thing that he had on it, there was a whole lot of that in New York. Madonna before she hit was into that scene, that post-Studio 54 scene. Bands like Kid Creole & the Coconuts, and Talking Heads were part of that; all this cluster of the arts, sex, punk and funk. Prince saw all of that, but was that unto himself in Minneapolis. He was always rock-y and always funky, but that record really went into a different sphere. It’s not the last Prince album ever with live drums, but it’s before he made friends with that drum machine.” — Khari Cabral Simmons

Dirty Mind, Prince’s third album, is as lascivious as it sounds, controversial in it’s in-your-face sexuality (re: “Head”, etc.) that I don’t think I would have fully comprehended at age eight. I would have been very confused in fact, listening to “Sister.” Is he talking about… ?!? Kudos to that song’s vocalist, David Whild, for taking this one by its balls. Unflinching.

It was a funky funky night.

‘Dirty Mind’ Set List

  • “Dirty Mind” – vocals by Jill Rock Jones
  • “When You Were Mine” – vocals by David Whild
  • “Do It All Night” – vocals by Maya Neiada
  • “Gotta Broken Heart Again” – vocals by Brenda Nicole Moorer
  • “Uptown” – vocals by Heratio Valentino
  • “Head” – vocals by Rahbi Raw | Libro Musica Live! video
  • “Sister” – vocals by David Whild
  • “Partyup” – vocals by Maya Neiada & Jill Rock Jones
  • “Jack U Off” – from the album Controversy vocals by Maya Neiada
  • “She’s Always In My Hair” – b-side to “Raspberry Beret” – vocals by Jill Rock Jones

The Crew

Prince as “the Beethoven of our time”
— An Interview Moment with Khari Cabral Simmons

Khari: Beethoven brought something different to harmony. He brought lead-in notes, like the way a lot of jazz harmony works. I feel like a lot of that was seen and heard in Beethoven’s works. He would hit something and it would be a half-step below the ultimate note that you want to get to for the next chord, often. In jazz, melodies do that all the time and when you’re walking bass lines, that’s certainly something you do a lot of the time. Also, these chord substitutions Beethoven would do…

Me (in my head as Khari proceeded to wax long into music theory): I’m just a fan/layman. I’m like, whaaaa????

Khari (after my head stopped spinning): …and I would also say that, to me, Prince, while I’m not saying that he created a completely different harmonic landscape, I would still say that he was just that creative in terms of bringing things together and melodies in very different ways. You know Housequake” from the Sign O’ the Times album?

Me (with my outside voice): Do I know “Housequake.” Ppppffffbbbbtttt!!

Me (in my head): Shut up, already, damn! Tell me who in this house know about the quake? I mean really. Really. If you know how to rock, say yeah. If you know how to party, say oh yeah. But if you ain’t hip to the rare housequake, shut up, already, damn!!  (…but I digress…)

Khari: I’m listening to this rehearsal of “Housequake” for seven minutes while the band’s running, and I’m listening to the bass line, and just like most funk stuff, he’s playing over a minor groove, but the bass line plays something kind of major. Maybe you’ll catch a song in a major key and the bass line will do something that’s kind of minor, but it’s never the other way around.

Me (in my head): Okay, yeah, if you’re going to put it in “Housequake” terms, now I get it!

Khari: Harmonic bravery. That’s what makes it the same as Beethoven. [And] just being the trendsetter of our age in music. Once you get beyond a Duke Ellington, and maybe a Stevie Wonder, I would argue that he is that.

Mr. Simmons had studied Composition at Morehouse College — the Bach, the Mozart, the Beethoven, the Shubert. He was good at analysis and continues find that the thing that’s fun for him is looking at “What does make that song tick? I’ve always known that I loved that song, but sometimes [it hits you] — ‘Oh! It’s these two chords that give me that feeling. Oh! That’s what it was the whole time! Just this! At the heart of everything.’”

Dirty Mind - The Album - A Prince Tribute | Next Level Events
Musical Director, Khari Cabral Simmons, extolls the virtues of Prince’s ‘Dirty Mind’, and more, March 2, 2018

Mission to Enrich the Atlanta Music Scene

“I always feel like Atlanta is one good supportive person in government away from being [an] Austin,” says Simmons, a highly active participant, who is witnessing (while feeding this diverse and vibrant hotbed of talent, happenings, and demand) Atlanta begin to claim its additional identity as a live music city with “outrageously stellar entertainment.”

Craig M. Garrett fell into producing experiences for people, by creating special evenings in Atlanta that would get him out the door [me too!], like intimate supper club nights complete with local music artists and culinary curation, and like Lalah Hathaway‘s two-show sold out album release event at Center Stage, for the multiple Grammy award winning Lalah Hathaway Live. NLE has worked with Mary J. Blige, Chaka Khan, etcetera.

Critical to the mission is that there is an experience to be valued not just by the audiences, but by the musicians themselves, the agents and the managers, and the venues; and much of that has to do with enjoying going-large, but being passionately dedicated to local projects.

Being Prince fans (an acknowledged understatement) made for a partnership made by easy affinity between Craig and Khari. In the beginning, developing sets based on jazz interpretations of popular Prince works felt natural to both their acumen, but both found themselves willing to take risks like gambling on an evening of Prince’s b-sides, and eventually even Prince’s own hardcore jazz, the Madhouse sessions. All were incredibly well received.

Part of each success is Khari’s knack for turning pieces on their heads and twisting expectations by weaving surprises into his set lists. Taking a cue from the many-genre-fusing Artist being honored — exploring and sampling from across Prince’s universe makes participating in these series on any level fresh and inspiring.

NLE Prince Tributes Coming to Venkman’s in June

Serendipitous Meetings of Music Minds

My first official coverage gig with Libro Musica was over two years ago at the music production and rehearsal space, 800 East, where Khari’s been a longtime fixture. Carmen Rodger’s album Stargazer was mixed in his studio. When she got called to do Foreign Exchange’s tour, she and Zo!, who does keys with FE, started doing live shows together, one of them at 800 East. Though I had probably stepped on the toe of Craig M. Garrett when navigating the studio’s wraparound balcony to shoot, I had been in and out, not meeting anyone at all. But I loved the music, I loved the vibe of the event, and to this day, I love those pics. [Check it out: Carmen Rodgers & Zo! at 800 East Studios]

Craig apparently was moved that night to immediately contact musicians Tomi Martin and Trina Meade of Three 5 Human, to say the show he’s working with them to put together needs to be at 800 East. Tomi is a world class guitarist who’s played with (and in some cases was musical director for) major acts such as Outkast, Eric Clapton, Toni Braxton, Madonna, Stevie Nicks… I was honored to cover Stevie Nicks at Philips Arena for Libro Musica in 2017.

There was a time, and returning times, that Erika Badu’s album, Baduizm was a staple in my life. I missed ATL Collective’s tribute night to that album last year and this, but last year Libro Musica founder, Antonius Maximus Rex covered it, and pictured is bass player Khari Cabral Simmons, keyboardist Rhett Huffman, and drummer Chris Burroughs.

It’s a small, beautiful world, and I’d say these people have some damn good taste, and friends and colleagues with damn good taste.

Here I am in Atlanta, able to celebrate Prince’s life on the date it tragically ended two years ago, full of gratitude for the intra-collaboratory musicians and supporting players who continue to say “Fuck Yeah! * about inspiring audiences to get out and enjoy and support live music

* I’m remembering Craig Garrett referencing the remarkable Mark Manson article, “Fuck Yes” during our interview, speaking about why he continues to do what he does — with incredible passion. I second that emotion.

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Kari Leigh London Written by: