I dropped into Prince's web site yesterday (thanks Bill) to see how to get his new album. It seemed to be only available for (paid) download, only available in Windows Media format, and not actually available at all since the link was dead. But I kept poking around his abominable flash interface, and saw that he was kicking off the tour in LA Monday night, with the show simulcast in movie theaters across the country. Unfortunately the NYC shows (at the Union Square theater) were all sold out, but I was working in NJ and there were tickets available for the show at the Regal on Route 1 in North Brunswick. So for $20 I got to see a preview of the tour and a free (albeit cheesily packaged in a thin cardboard sleeve) copy of the CD.
It's a greatest hits tour (see set list below); while he opened with what I assume is the title track from the new album, and played a few others I didn't recognize (either unreleased, from the new album, or from some of his thoroughly obscure 90s albums that I don't listen to much) he mostly did a career overview ranging from "I Feel For You" (Yes, trivia fans, that songs pred8s Prince's spelling quirks; he kicked it off, asked if anyone recognized it, and groaned, "Ah, y'all don't know my music.") to "7" -- in other words, nothing newer than 1992 and surprisingly, nothing from Diamonds and Pearls.
This is the third show in the last few years I've seen where a former smash hitmaker trots out a new album in front of his loyal fans. Paul McCartney, sadly, played Beatles songs like a particularly gifted cast member of Beatlemania, copying note-for-note solos that he hadn't even played originally. David Bowie sold out Roseland for a fun show, kidding around with the band, telling jokes, and performing two albums (a nicely updated "Low" and his new "Heathen") straight through from start to finish and then offered a quick encore of three big hits. McCartney was playing himself on TV; Bowie was successful and comfortable and happy enough not to give a damn what you thought.
Prince had something to prove -- that nobody can put together a live show like he can, various pretenders notwithstanding -- and he worked his ASS off to do it. He put on an incredibly tight, choreographed show, done the old-fashioned way. James Brown would have been proud; I don't know if Prince fines people who drop a beat but if so, nobody owed any money at the end of the night.
This band has clearly been playing eight hours a day for months. About midway through the first set, after a minor mistake from one of the band, he announced "Los Angeles, we do not believe in lip-synching. This is real music by real musicians." He gave every band member a lot of space for solos, did set pieces with many of them (particularly sax player Candy Dulfer, ex-Van Morrison, who also did some singing), and also played a lot of guitar himself, mostly the same blonde Telecaster (or a copy thereof) he's been using since at least the video for 1999. So he did a lot of showboat soloing, of course, but several times he stopped the band and laid down some great funk grooves, and he often answered his own vocals with the guitar. On A Question Of U, in fact, he did an extended solo with some (thankfully) nicely restrained use of the wah pedal, kind of lip-synching along with a lot of sustained, bent notes from the guitar. (Heavy use of whammy bar as well.)
Renato Neto on keyboards, with several long spots to himself, played very jazzy piano, but at other times rocked out on a couple of vintage 80s analog synthesizers. Rhonda Smith is a monster on bass -- she can play anything from hard rock to old-school funk to what almost sounds like an acoustic bass -- and the horn section (two saxes plus a great trombone player) was hot and wirelessly mobile (at one point, Prince was holding his mic back over his shoulder, leading the trombone player around the stage and "pulling" notes out of his horn. The closeup camera work really shows you how hard they're working: playing hard, dancing, doing rehearsed moves with very tight cues, and all the women and Prince in three-inch heels to boot (forgive me).
The best surprise, though, was the second set, which started off entirely acoustic. He sat by himself on a swivel chair (the stage is in the round) and played "Forever In My Life" while turning himself (ie, not on a turntable). He played a couple of blues, including this 12-bar gem:
Ain't nothin after midnight ever been too good for me
Ain't nothin after midnight ever been too good for me
Cause when I wake up in the morning I don't know who you be
Somethin's funky baby, is that your breath or mine?
Somethin's really funky baby, is that your breath or mine?
I had the regular chips bby, you had that other kind
I'm really gonna need your name if I'm gonna make you mine
Yes I'll need your name baby if I'm gonna make you mine
My name is 12:01 but you can call me anytime
Prince's licks and phrasing have always been very bluesy but hearing him play (almost) solo acoustic, you really see how much of what he does is based on standard blues licks, but mutated through his own melodic quirkiness and love of jazz. He was backed by a second guitarist, Michael Scott, sitting back in the dark, which seemed a little like cheating at first. But Scott, who'd been playing a gorgeous jazz archtop during the main set, just played tasteful rhythm on the first song while Prince played fills and leads. On the second blues, Prince gave him an extended solo, and just sat there in the spotlight playing rhythm and enjoying Scott's playing.
He wrapped up the acoustic set with Little Red Corvette (yes, acoustic, even replicating the keyboard riff in the chorus with big full open chords) and 7, which re-introduced the band for a long rideout on (obviously) "Purple Rain."
- Musicology (just him and the drummer)
- Let's Go Crazy
- When Doves Cry (he tossed the "Kiss" riff in on guitar after the 2nd line)
- I Would Die 4 U
- Baby I'm a Star
- I Feel For You
- Beautiful Ones
- (segues to) Nothing Compares 2 U (never noticed, but similar chord changes)
- Slow song I didn't recognize
- Sign O The Times (with the gun mic)
- A Question Of U
- Let's Work
- U Got the Look
- Another song I didn't recognize
- Soul Man (with a guest vocalist, didn't catch his name)
- Kiss ("Dynasty" reference sung by audience, but corrected to "Sex In the City" by Prince, with a laugh)
- Take Me With You
- Forever In My Life
- Two blues songs I don't recognize including the one quoted above
- Little Red Corvette
- Sometimes It Snows In April
- 7 (bringing back band)
- Purple Rain, with the purple symbol guitar
Instrumental set break, with a long sax solo culminating on a two-minute circular-breathing sustained note. Not sure who the player was, but it wasn't Maceo Parker (more's the pity) ---
During this song he invites audience members up to dance. It's a wide cross-section of people -- quite a few PYTs but also dumpy guys in shorts who couldn't dance, and middle-aged women. He tapped one girl with purple hair on the shoulder, and danced with her for a moment, then a few minutes later leaned back on an overweight woman in an unfortunately tight denim dress, soloing on guitar as she just laughed and laughed. Someone else slipped and fell; and right on the one he stops the band, says "Oops! Too many trips to the bar!" and picks the song right up again (have I mentioned how tight this band is?). The dancers stay onstage till the end of the main set.
So, it certainly could have been more adventurous (I would have loved to see the One Night Alone tour that came out in the box set last year) but it was a thrilling show on screen, so I'm looking forward to seeing it in person. It would be nice if he would start writing seriously again, but I think he made his point that no matter how many samples and tape loops support them, most of the current crew of pop superstars just couldn't touch a show like this. He even dissed his contemporaries who've not aged so well; at one point, after he'd been singing falsetto, he dropped his voice, saying "Is my voice getting higher? I ain't NEVER had my nose done."
He said this would be his last time playing these hits (which I think he's said before) and that this was his first arena tour in ten years (not true; Jam Of the Year was 96-97). But like Bowie, Prince knows it's not about being genuine, it's about making sure there's plenty of art in the artifice.