Over the last decade, Milwaukee-based artist Gabriel Sanchez has strutted on stage and performed the brilliant works of the legendary Prince — curled wig, ruffled shirt, guitar solos, and all — as part of “The Prince Experience.” In re-creating the experience of Prince in his more sexualized heyday of the mid-1980s, he's able to prove the sound of Prince is immortal, even after we've lost the artist himself.
Sanchez's portrayal feels almost uncomfortably close to the Purple One himself in the months since Prince's unexpected death in April at the age of 57. Despite that, he says he started donning violet by chance.
“Basically a friend of mine was involved with a local theater and they wanted to do Purple Rain live as a play,” Sanchez says. “He approached me about it and at first I said no. I’ve never acted before and at that point, never learned how to play Prince music. ... I told him, ‘Tell me when you guys are doing it. I’ll buy tickets. I love Prince and I love that movie. ... (but) I can’t do that. There’s no way. It sounds too hard.’”
Sanchez says his friend eventually wore him down, which left only the monumental task of becoming Price. Despite growing up with rock, funk and R&B practically a part of his DNA — having learned to play guitar, drums and keyboards as well as write his own music already — Sanchez says he had a tough time trying to copy Prince. After a few runs of Prince's hits on repeat, he felt comfortable covering the wide vocal range utilized in Prince songs, but the dancing was a completely different story.
“That was kind of the funny part because I’m really shy when it comes to actually dancing in front of people and my whole entire family knew that,” Sanchez said. “I knew I could dance sexually, but I did it behind closed doors like when I was at home by myself getting ready and when I had music on. When I did it live, my family thought that was so funny and said, ‘We didn’t know you could do that!’”
With the vocals learned and the embarrassment of dancing on stage conquered, Sanchez had just one challenge left: mastering the iconic guitar solos.
“Back then I was more of a rhythm player so I had to actually learn all the guitar solos,” Sanchez said. “Someone told me, ‘If you can’t play the solos, we’ll have someone on the side of the stage and we’ll have them play and you fake it.’ I said, ‘Nope. Then I won’t do it.’ It just didn’t feel right. I worked really hard and learned the solos, learned the vocals, and watched (Purple Rain) over and over and over again so I could study the way he moved just to get the essence of him.”
After the play was over that weekend, the reaction was so huge that Sanchez had no other choice other than to keep The Prince Experience going. Gathering top-notch local musicians, Sanchez has spent more than a decade creating a show that he describes as high-energy, sexual and fun — more than just a random tribute performance.
To Sanchez, all that effort is worth it for an artist he considers one of the greatest of all time.
“I think it’s such real music,” Sanchez says. “It comes from a talent with a soul. ... There are some songs that sound like they were thrown onto the table to make a hit song. His are more than that. They’re deeper than that. His songs will live on forever.”
Sanchez says he was as blindsided as anyone by the news of Prince's death several months ago. "I thought it was a hoax," he says. "I thought, 'This is not real.'" For him, realization came as local news stations began calling — having been associated with the artist for more than 10 years, he was an obvious person to call for comment — and texts started to pour in.
The news came with a sudden surge of interest in The Prince Experience, and now that he's had time to process things, Sanchez is satisfying demand. His original plans for the year were to perform under his own name, having booked a gig at Turner Hall in January as a release party for his first album Immortal By Sound. Instead, he's personifying Prince again, and keeping the spirit and sound of the legend alive.
His appearance at PrideFest will mark one of the first times Sanchez has performed his expanded show, having secured a two-hour timeslot double his usual set. Rather than stay exclusively within the mid-1980s period he's specialized in, Sanchez will add in music from the back half of Prince's career — maybe even ditching the iconic curled wig and ruffled shirt.
“I’m thinking about doing the post-Purple Rain look as well with the shorter hair and the different outfits and doing other songs,” Sanchez said. "I don’t want to do just the hits and that’s it. Everybody plays ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘Purple Rain.’ We play those songs really, really well, but it would be even better with more songs included. The show’s going to keep evolving and I want to build this huge catalogue so it’s not the same show every time.”
One day, Sanchez will have to call his time with The Prince Experience quits. But he's confident that Prince's sound will live on long after he puts down his guitar.
Not, of course, that that's any reason to miss his turn to bring Prince's sound to life.