If you were wondering how Prince’s Musicology album has stayed so consistently in the Billboard Top 10, especially given that the lead single is hardly another “U Got The Look,” you’ll find the answer at the usher podiums at his current summer tour, which are stocked with tens of thousands of copies that get handed out to each member of the audience. Though the diverting-if-uneven album has been tagged as Prince’s “comeback”—a label Prince has rejected in recent interviews, though he’d do well to pass the message to his hard-working publicity machine, and then give them a fruit basket in appreciation of their successful campaign—it’s clear that Prince’s real return to form is live in concert and bristling with crowd-pleasing brio. As he philosophizes during a Purple Rain medley: “1984…2004…it’s all the same to me.” All right, perhaps he would no longer get an entire stadium to rub their fingers together only to tell them that’s the sound of orgasm as he did on the Purple Rain tour, but neither would he subject them to the most pedantic moments of The Rainbow Children, as he did during his One Nite Alone stint in 2002.
Still, thank God (and “God”) for the return of Prince the showman, because the core statement at the heart of this tour is that Prince has come to terms with his devotion to—and place within—the storied history of ’70s funk and soul. (Dylan Hicks cleverly called “Musicology” Prince’s “Old Time Rock & Roll.”) It’s quite arrogant (though the set list is sans “Arrogance”) of Prince to presume to “teach” his audience a thing or two about funk. And true, a tour marketed by the threat that it will be the last time Prince performs “Kiss,” “When Doves Cry,” “Raspberry Beret,” and any other number of deceptively sly R&B hits that introduced The Bomb to an entire segment of music lovers whose taste rarely ran more sonically crunchy than Chicago is only bound to bring in its fair share of white-bread Sirs and Madams Nose. But, oddly enough, the opening montage before the show, intercutting the dependably portentous Alicia Keys’s Hall of Fame introduction speech with clips of Prince throughout his wild career, is a solipsistic ego-stroke that sets him apart from the Funk legacy he supposedly wants to fulfill with this tour. In other words, it’s the return of the very ego that made us fall in love with Prince in the first place.
The second of three concerts in Prince’s home turf of Minnesota’s Twin Cities started off with a delightful shock as an announcement washed over the crowd: “Morris Day and the Time!” Up until their premature break-up following their memorable supporting role in Purple Rain, the wildly talented and tight-as-hell Time served as Prince’s main side project throughout the early 80s. Under the moniker Jaime Starr, Prince co-produced and co-wrote a solid string of buzzing naked funk dance hits for the band, which included such names as Jesse Johnson, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis, and who many die-hard Purple scenesters say ran circles around even the Revolution. But for practically the last 20 years, they’ve been thought of as existing only in the past tense (Day’s egomaniac shtick was apparently sincere). So, befitting a concert in which the present comes to terms with the past, it was a jolt that there but for the Grace of His Royal Badness was the band he’d helped create and then later destroyed. As his personal “valet” Jerome held up a mirror, Morris primped and preened and launched into the taut, muscular synth grooves of “Cool,” “777-9311,” “Jungle Love,” and the frenetic barnburner “The Bird.” For once, the warm-up act wasn’t just coasting on the crowd’s anticipation for the real deal. They were the real deal.
Wearing an asymmetrical red trenchcoat and white platforms with silver heels (he may be a JW, but he’s a JW who still swipes from Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s closet), Prince rose from the floor in the center of the cross-shaped stage (aside from the set-list that was mounted on a replica of the Ten Commandments’ stone tablets, this was the closest thing to overt religious iconography in the whole show). After introducing most of the audience to “Musicology,” Prince segued directly into what most were waiting for: a gargantuan medley of Purple Rain’s biggest hits. As “Let’s Go Crazy” brought the crowd to its feet, confetti burst from every corner of the ceiling and, suddenly, it was 1984 all over again. “I Would Die 4 U,” “When Doves Cry,” “Baby I’m a Star.” And all the while, Prince moved from guitar solos to dance moves to microphone juggling feats like he couldn’t wait to show the audience what old tricks he still had. If “Musicology” took care of the album the tour was ostensibly promoting, and the Purple Rain medley won over the old school fans, then a lengthy jam session built on the skeleton of “D.M.S.R.” (and yes, he actually got the crowd to chant “sex”) got to the heart of Prince’s mission to baptize a new generation into the church of Funk. As in unapologetic, Afro-centric freakitude. As in invite the fattest woman up onto the stage and let her gyrate her weight in gold while he and the band riff on OutKast’s “The Way You Move.” As in perform “Controversy” with the “some people think I’m rude, I wish we all were nude” breakdown intact. As in perform the country-disco version of “I Feel For You” with Rhonda and Candy as though he were the lead in a girl group. As in stop the show cold and let sax legend Maceo Parker drop by and serenade the crowd with a tribute to Ray Charles (“Georgia On My Mind”).
Word had it that Prince indulged in one of his most endearing concert habits at the Wednesday and Friday shows: performing someone else’s song, in this case Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” He didn’t do that on Thursday, but in exchange he treated the audience to a stunning, extended amalgam of “The Question of U” and “The One” (both underrated fan faves) that was capped with a show-stopping guitar solo. It provided a climax of sorts to the slow, mostly acoustic middle section of the program, with the kind of guitar-and-stool posturing on usually upbeat tracks like “Little Red Corvette” and “Alphabet St.” that I would’ve typically cringed at were Prince not still engaging in cheeky banter with the crowd (“I’ll leave this building,” when the crowd didn’t provide an adequate response to his call). “Old pimps die hard,” he commented during the last section of the show, and almost as if to prove it, he invited some 20 or so hot young thangs up on the stage to dance (or, in the case of one fan, flail drunkenly like a tired drag queen) to “Take Me with You” and “U Got the Look.” In the end, it didn’t matter that using “Purple Rain” as a climax was a tad rote (even if it meant sending the crowd home with Wendy & Lisa’s dramatic, pleading string coda). Prince reminded the crowd of what a true talent was capable of, without fancy sets and theatrics but simply the urge to throw the town’s biggest block party, a celebration of musicality.
Aftershow (Paisley Park – June 18, 2004)
Prince played no less than six sets while in the Twin Cities: three stadium shows and three intimate, night’s-journey-into-day aftershows at his Chanhassen studio Paisley Park, where he allowed his band the opportunity to stretch out, improvise, and show off their chops. Kip Blackwell and his band were given a generous, nearly two hour slot to warm up the crowd, even if they were mostly unresponsive until Larry Graham (the very man who introduced Prince to his current religious understanding; though, to be fair, also the architect of possibly the single most indelible bass lines of the 60s with Sly and the Family Stone) took the stage to perform “Everyday People.” By the time Prince walked out onto the small stage in front of a crowd of over 500 to croon Musicology’s “Call My Name,” it was already past 2:30 in the morning. That he followed the D’Angelo-style ballad with the sultry story song “Joy In Repetition,” it was clear he was in no mood to rush. In fact, he even invited a tone-deaf audience member to sing the song a second time (impishly mocking his unorthodox posture and stage presence behind his back). “Girls & Boys” followed and, not counting a “Brettino’s Bounce”-styled version of “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” that bore virtually no resemblance to the 1999 track, it was the last of Prince’s own songs he’d perform until the encore, nearly an hour-and-a-half later. The musicology lesson kicked in and keyboardist Chance Howard sang his rendition of “Knock on Wood,” followed by Prince’s blazing rendition of Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip?” “Tighter than a mosquito’s behind,” he quipped of the band afterwards. (Not quite “funkier than a skeeter’s tweeter,” but I guess that would’ve been too much to expect a man of God to say, even in a fit of mock pique.)
At that point, the jamming in earnest began. An instrumental version of Beyoncé’s “Speechless” (Mike Phillips on sax) melted into a stankonious “Shake Everything You’ve Got.” (As various members of the band exuded uncut funkiness, Prince would flit around them with a can of air freshener.) Again, people were invited onto the stage (after a while, the whole mob resembled a tastefully dressed P-Funk horde), and the vamp went on for at least 25 minutes while everyone took a solo line. My sister and I stepped toward the back of the auditorium (we’d been standing for nearly six hours straight, the last two in the middle of a tightly-packed crowd, and we needed a break). As we leaned and sucked from our Musicology bottled water, we noticed we were sitting at the foot of the stairs to an elevated platform with couches. We scarcely had time to wonder who was sitting up there before a silhouetted figure descended the stairs and strolled no more than three feet in front of us toward the stage. When he raised the microphone to his mouth to shout “yeah” in approval of the band’s performance, we realized that we were breathing Prince’s scent. I was wearing my gold-glitter Stevie Wonder T-shirt that evening, and at that very moment, Prince strapped on a bass guitar and plucked out the introduction to “Superstition.” I’m not positive he actually noticed my shirt, or even if he did that the band hadn’t already planned to perform “Superstition,” but in my mind, that song was for me. Everyone else can lay claim to the evening closer “Adore,” which still hung in the air as we all left Paisley into the already cerulean skies.