Remember When: Prince Opened For Himself by Donning a Disguise At 2011 Montreal Jazz Festival

When he was alive there was certainly one lesson that many people learned: Don’t tell Prince what to do. And don’t criticize him either. That applied when he headlined a show at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2011 and ended up opening for himself in disguise, seemingly to ward off a press insinuation about why he should be there.

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The festival might sound like an unlikely forum for Prince’s music. But it had expanded its musical range and booked some non-jazz acts like Bryan Adams, who is a Canadian icon, and metal band Voivod, who in 2019 performed with a brass section. By cleverly integrating jazz adjacent and some pop acts into the mix, the festival had expanded its audience.

Prince was also up for a challenge, as was the case when he was booked for his two-night stand at the 2,300-person capacity Metropolis venue (now known as MTELUS). These were expected to be the typically solid Prince shows with jams and unexpected surprises. But the first night, also the night of the festival, turned out to be anything but even his ordinary show, as this reporter learned when he attended the 40th anniversary of the festival in 2019 and spoke to retiring MJF co-founder André Ménard. The man has certainly seen a lot of different things in his life, including witnessing Lemmy’s final gig with Hawkwind before he was kicked out and ended up forming Motörhead.

An Opportunistic Move

Ménard told me he had many favorite shows from his four decades of working Montreal Jazz Fest, but he said that the most astonishing was Prince at the Metropolis. The Purple One showed up on the day of his first show, and the only major English newspaper in the city, the Montreal Gazette, “said it was an opportunistic move from the Jazz Festival to book someone like Prince,” recalled Ménard. “[It was] not a big editorial. But Prince must have read it because he held a three-hour rehearsal at the hall in the afternoon, and when he was supposed to break the musicians he called a meeting. So there was no dinner time for them.”

That night, Prince then took the stage, opening for himself disguised in a wig. Along with Larry Graham of Graham Central Station and Sly and the Family Stone fame, Prince “played one hour of freestyle, totally improvised music, with almost no lights on stage and him talking in the vocoder,” said Ménard. “You could hardly tell who he was, and some people walked out really incensed. He was not supposed to take an intermission, so the bars were closed, and he called an intermission. So everybody was very skeptical. I saw a guy from a Montreal radio station who said, ‘This is a fraud. This is not Prince.’ And I said, ‘He was here this afternoon for a soundcheck.’ But are you about to tell Prince what he should be doing? You do that and you lose.”

The night was far from over.

Only the Hits

“So we had this experience of a very strange opening with Prince, and then he came back to the stage much quicker than a real intermission should have been,” continued Ménard. “He came on stage, and the lights are on in the house and on stage. Prince said, ‘Who was that guy playing that s–t? We’re here to play rock ‘n’ roll!’ And then something that you never get from Prince: an hour and a half of hits—no jams, no covers, only his hits. And he played them all.”

Press outlets like The Globe and Mail raved about the show, which actually turned out to be a four-hour set with no less than six encores. The epic set included classics like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “1999,” and “Raspberry Beret”; newer songs like “Dreamer,” “Musicology,” and 20Ten’s hidden CD track “Laydown”; and covers of Joni Mitchell and Sly and the Family Stone. 

Funnily enough, there is no mention anywhere of Prince’s musical prank and no footage on YouTube. Then again, with some weird dude playing strange improv music in the shadows, who suspected it was him?

“That was like an exercise in contrarian spirit, but the end result was the [unexpected] addition,” Ménard summed up to me. “It added up to so much magic. He was the most talented performer in the world. We got the package that night. That was the real deal with Prince. Don’t tell him what he’s supposed to do!”

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Photo by Jordan Strauss/WireImage

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