Prince: Welcome 2 America, Oakland version

I may not be a die-hard Prince fan like Anne Enigma, but my history as ardent admirer goes back quite a ways. Here's an interesting "less than six degrees of separation" story for you. Back in 1981, KROQ started playing tracks off of "Controversy"- I thought it was great stuff, the title track and "Let's Work" especially, and soon I was playing Prince regularly at my DJ gigs. At the time I was kind of dating (more like consistently messing around with) a girl named Lisa Cholodenko. Yes, the same Lisa who's nominated for an Oscar this year. I have no idea if it's true or not, but I've long suspected I may have been the last guy she ever dated. I'm not sure what to make of that, but I try not to think about the ramifications of such a fact if it's indeed true.

I asked Lisa if she wanted to go to see the Rolling Stones, who were going to do a gig at the LA Coliseum in support of the Tattoo You album. The opening acts were the J. Geils Band, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and Prince, in reverse order. This was the infamous concert where Prince got booed off the stage. I remember Lisa saying "who the fuck is this guy- he sucks," or something like that, echoing the thoughts and jeers of 90,000 yahoos who were booing him. I told her I thought he was actually pretty good and it's too bad the obvious racial undertones to the booing were derailing a performer who obviously had some chops and the goods. You don't end up on a Stones tour for nothing. Besides, didn't these idiots know that without Black music there would be no Rolling Stones?

The irony of ironies is that Lisa eventually ended up with Wendy Melvoin as her partner- the Wendy of Wendy and Lisa, famously of Prince's Purple Rain era. Now isn't life odd? I lost track of Cho for years shortly after that era and now she's a well-established, Oscar-nominated filmmaker and I'm just this guy who writes this blog under a pseudonym. That's life. And we all know what happened to Prince.

A couple of short years after that the only rival he had was Michael Jackson. I kept going to his gigs, but eventually, by the time he released Emancipation, I had grown interested in other kinds of music and keeping up with everything was simply too much. Whatever Prince was up to fell by the wayside and he became an artist I used to like, rather than an artist I was still actively engaged in following. It happens.

So a good ten years goes by and while I still broke out my 12"s of "Housequake/Hot Thang" and "When Doves Cry/33 Days" from time to time, the last tunes of his that really grabbed me were from 1992's Glyph album- "My Name is Prince," "Sexy MF," "Seven"- you know the stuff- it kicked ass.

So when my then-girlfriend said we were going to see the Musicology tour in 2004 I was dubious. It sounded like a lame, last go-round, money-milking endeavor to me. But I agreed and she and I, along with the elder Swede, the Reverend Brown and a few others, went and we had the fucking time of our lives. No doubt in part due that I had seriously low expectations, it ended up being one of the very best shows I have ever seen. And trust me- I've seen almost everybody of a certain era and I'm pretty damn critical. That show in my mind was akin to seeing James Brown at the Olympia in the late 60's or early 70's. It really could not have been better. It was "Musicology" alright- a master class in funk, soul, and R&B delivered with searing precision and giddy force without a weak link nor a dull moment. Total. Complete. Brilliance.

The show has stuck in my mind ever since not only an example of how to do it right, but also as a prime example that while the best material some musicians will ever write may be behind them, their chops and musicianship- their understanding of music- only grows with time- like the Rolling Stones, now that I think of it.

When I saw the announcement for the Welcome 2 America shows in and around NYC, and read the phenomenal Esperanza Spalding was going to be part of it, I wanted desperately to go. Sadly, it didn't work out. No more gigs were announced until last week and suddenly it was going to be happening here in a matter of days.

A missive to the usual suspects only netted one taker- the elder Swede, for the Monday show- last night.

We had dinner beforehand at Puccini & Pinetti- a place we used to frequent back when they had a manger who really tried to cultivate locals to their Union Square location. Now it's a ridiculously over-priced tourist trap but they still make good Manhattans. But seriously- $25 for lasagna? No thank you.

The lights went down and for some reason I thought we were about to see Cee-Lo as the opener but instead I was pleased to hear Prince himself introduce Graham Central Station, ex-Sly and the Family Stone bass-player Larry Graham's local funk ensemble. They were tight and engaging and after a few songs began to dig into the Family Stone songbook and tore the not-yet-full house up. 2/3s of the way through their set Prince and the NPG join them, starting with "Mountains" and soon there are 18 people onstage performing "Everyday People" and "I Want to Take You Higher."

Not a bad start, even if it wasn't The Time. As we waited for the Purple One, the screens above the stage played videos of Wilson Pickett and Ike and Tina Turner. Damn, Tina Tuner was hot.

Prince took the stage at 9:15. I've already posted the setlist here, so I'm not going to revisit it, but there are a number of other things I found striking about the show.

First, with the exception of Prince, the drummer and one of two keyboard players, everyone else onstage is female. Sheila E. on percussion, vocalists Elisa Fiorillo and Shelby Johnson, sax player Candy Dulfer, and a couple of others. This had a significant impact on not only the material presented but on how it came across. This wasn't Prince schooling the audience on how to get funky. No, this was Prince schooling the audience in what a superstud he was. Can he pull that off? Of course he can. But instead of evoking James Brown at the Olympia in 1971, this was more like Elvis' comeback special in 1968. Yeah, the talent is all there, and being put to good use, but it felt like it was only one side of the man, albeit one that's fascinating to watch. It's just necessarily the side I'm more interested in. Fully in command of the audience, making asides like, "Oh no, if I sing this it's going to cause a divorce," it was like a Teddy Pendergrass gig from the 70's- except the guys were invited along because really, who else was going to shell out $300 for a ringside seat in order to impress their girl and insure "It's Gonna be a Beautiful Night"?

"Scandalous," "Adore,""Insatiable," and "If I Was Your Girlfriend"? The only one missing from this pack was "Do Me Baby" and "Let's Pretend We're Married"- neither of which I think he sings anymore because of his refined beliefs. He only held a guitar half of the time, and preened his way through the majority of the set, not turning on the guitar pyrotechnics until "Purple Rain" and the near-closer "Dreamer" which really is a damn shame because in truth Prince rivals any living guitarist. Did it work? Hell yes, and the capacity crowd ate it up- myself included, but I still felt like it could have been a lot more.

It felt spontaneous, which is always a good thing, but it also felt loose where it should have been tight, easy instead of challenging, and finally, cocksure instead of cocky. Much has been written in the past 48 hours about how only Prince could announce concerts of this size 5 days in advance, put the tickets on sale two days later, then sell the shows out and and add another one to boot. My take on the crazy scheduling of this tour so far is that Prince is just eyeing vacant arenas and swooping in at the last minute to book halls which would otherwise be dark at rock-bottom prices. It's a rapacious and brilliant move, which only someone like him could pull off. But that uneasy sense of easy-pickings for maximum profit made its way onto the stage. You don't take a show this on the road sporadically here and there and make it work as seamlessly as it did last night. The talent needs to be paid while it's sitting around wondering where they are going to be in a week or three, so there must be a plan afoot, even if it doesn't look like it. So far, as it was after the NY shows, no follow-up dates have been announced. As I said to the girl in the brown mini dress on the upper level during intermission- Really? Really? Really.

I'll be back for more tomorrow night. Why? Because while I know I'm being done, and done hard ($13 beers?),  it sure does feels good while I'm getting it, and I'm a glutton.

For another take, the review of the show over at SFWeekly is the best one I've read so far and has some pretty good photos from the night.