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Talking favorite songs and emotional fans with Purple Reign’s Prince tribute artist Jason Tenner

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Getting purple with Jason Tenner behind the scenes at the International Theater.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Twenty years in, Jason Tenner certainly qualifies as a Las Vegas entertainment institution, having performed as the frontman for one of the country’s most popular tribute acts, Purple Reign, at so many different venues it’s hard to keep track.

For the past two years, Tenner’s Prince has owned the stage at Westgate Las Vegas, but very quickly after Prince’s death last year, the show was moved from the small Cabaret showroom to the International Theater—the legendary space Elvis Presley, Liberace and Wayne Newton have called home.

With the anniversary of the icon’s death just a few weeks away, we spent some quality time with Tenner in his (obviously) purple dressing room below the theater’s stage to talk favorite songs, changes to the show and keeping Vegas audiences happy.

Purple Reign has been all over Vegas and then some. Do you have favorite venues? I have fond memories of most of the places we’ve spent time, from Station Casinos east and west, from the Santa Fe to Sunset, to the Strip at Mandalay Bay and Monte Carlo and the old Boardwalk where CityCenter is now. We’ve been around. We had two stays Downtown at the D, then came here to Westgate.

And you still travel most months? We had a month off but we have five road dates in April and more in May. It’s cool. It’s fun. It keeps me busy. Planes are like torture chambers, stress positions for me. I have hip issues from doing the splits all those years. But I do yoga and catch a nap and I’m good.

I’m sure this has been the most interesting and perhaps most emotional year of your long career. Do you approach your performance differently now? It’s not that we didn’t, before this moment, attempt to make the most reasonable facsimile of Prince, his work, his music, the sound, the look, the feeling, that we could; we’ve always done that. But now the level of scrutiny is a little higher. We video every week and make sure what we’re putting out is the best we can represent. We changed a bunch of things last night and none of it felt good so we’re going back tonight. Now it feels like the fans are paying more attention. They are hyper-aware.

When Prince first passed, did you feel you needed to take a break from all this? We didn’t take a break. Things got really intense for a while; there was a lot more demand. But we have had a break. We got to take some time over the holidays, lots of downtime, rest and sleep. I’ve worked 50 weeks a year for a long time. I have to take care of myself physically, but a couple weeks a year is all I need.

I think a lot of fans have been digging deeper into his work now and maybe rediscovering music that we weren’t familiar with. I hope so.

But you probably do that all the time. Is there a song you want to do now that you didn’t do before? There are a lot of Prince songs I want to do that we don’t do. The vast majority of people know the hits: “Little Red Corvette,” “1999,” “Raspberry Beret.” [For] the Vegas show, we’re already at an hour and 35, 40 minutes, so if we drive it any further, we’ve got to take an intermission, which I actually wouldn’t be opposed to. Hmm ... that’s something to think about.

But there are a lot of songs I’d love to put in, and we do, for our own kicks. We’ll learn songs randomly that we vote on and then throw them in and confuse everyone, just for fun. “Strange Relationship” is one of my favorites. Do you know it? From Sign o’ the Times. That was one. I forced the band to learn this song that none of them really knew.

That sounds like a very Prince thing to do, to keep everyone on their toes. Well, it’s rock and roll, baby, no matter how we slice it, whether we’re in Vegas or wherever. That’s rock ’n’ roll. We are the most constrained here because of time, and audiences here are more, you know ... I’ve seen volcanoes, lions, tigers, bears, the Eiffel Tower and New York City. What you gon’ do? So we have to hit ‘em and move, whereas people in other places appreciate it more. They’re less overwhelmed by the time they get to us.

Give me some other songs you want to play. Ones I would add? We’ve played “Computer Blue,” but it loses people every night.

What? “Computer Blue” is the best performance from the movie [Purple Rain]. I agree, totally. This whole conversation has really got me thinking about an intermission now. I think we should really do it.

So that one, and what else would I put in? “She’s Always in My Hair.” I like to play that song. You start naming off songs and I’ll say yes or no.

Maybe my all-time favorite is “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” We do that one. We do a mix between a live version and the album version but I don’t do the little vocal pitch-up.

The Camille. What else? “Days of Wild.” The Crystal Ball title track. Ooh! “Calhoun Square.” You know that one? The track starts, “Listen to the drummer but you still wanna have fun/It shouldn’t be work/Two, three, baby.” So sick. I’ve heard so much stuff. He just blew my mind, blew everyone’s mind.

What do you think about possibly getting into his vault and hearing all the stuff we haven’t heard yet? That would be really, really cool. I don’t know what’s happening with the estate but that would be awesome, if they can get organized and release some stuff. I heard there are a couple movies he produced as well. That would be interesting to see.

You said there’s a little more scrutiny now at Purple Reign shows. In what other ways is the response different from then to now? There’s been some weird stuff. Prince is an iconic thing and I think people get a little overzealous about some things. Really, there’s just a lot more energy. It’s cathartic for people. You know, Prince didn’t like the word “fan.” He thought it was short for fanatic. You can kind of see where he’s coming from. I mean, people would cry before but now they cry, like, oh my god, and I understand but I don’t know what to do in that situation. That part has become more intense. Purple Reign: The Prince Tribute Show at Westgate Las Vegas, Wednesdays-Saturdays at 9 p.m.

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Brock Radke has been writing about Las Vegas for more than 15 years. He currently covers entertainment, music, nightlife, food ...

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