Prince came to Oakland for three nights and though I didn't plan on it, I ended up going to every show. When he announced this tour Prince said every night was going to be different. That proved truer than I would have ever expected. While it's true no two concerts or performances are ever alike, the Purple One gave this maxim an unprecedented spin.
The first night Prince was in kind of a Teddy Pendergrass mode. It was essentially an updated version of TP's "For Ladies Only" concerts back in the 70's. He had his guitar over his shoulder for half the concert at best and seemed more interested in preening and teasing than playing it. The first show had some great parts- Santana coming out to burn it up on "Soul Sacrifice," gorgeous renditions of "Purple Rain" and "Adore," and finally some scorching Hendrix-flavored guitar during "Dreamer," but it wasn't enough to make me forget how awesome he was back in 2004 when the Musicology tour hit town and blew everyone away. This show was what I expected back then, and since he raised the bar so high the last time, while the first night was good, very good at times, I wouldn't say it was great. I have more about the first night here.
As I approached the arena on the second night (Wednesday) a woman was looking for a ticket and I almost sold mine to her. I wasn't very hopeful the second show was going to be much better than the first, and I almost didn't go at all. But I decided I really didn't want to waste the money and I knew the setlist would be different so my curiosity won the day. I skipped the opening set by Graham Central Station this time around completely, arriving at the arena at about 8:45 and I settled into my seat just as they were ending their set.
At 9:15, just like on Monday, the lights went down and I soon sensed this was going to be a far different show. Opening with "Let's Go Crazy," Prince started off with four songs from 1999. There was a keyboard player way off to the side of the arena I hadn't even noticed on Monday and when Prince called him "Mr. Hayes" I thought "wow- Isaac Hayes is playing with him tonight!" I was really looking forward to hearing Prince do the "Theme from 'Shaft'" for the next hour or so until I remembered Hayes died a couple of years back. I have no idea who this Mr. Hayes was, but he did resemble the dead one (at least while he was alive) and musically he injected some serious funk that was missing from Monday's set, especially on "Kiss" which received a harder treatment, including the extended part from the 12" single version, and "Controversy"- done in a raunchy, crunchy "Batdance" way.
The 1999 songs had already put this show on a far different footing than the first night, but as Prince began chanting "People call me rude- I wish we all were nude..." (absent in the version from Monday's show) it hit overdrive and never turned back. Prince picked up a bass for the next song and soon was leading the New Power Generation through cover versions of Chic's "Le Freak," the Ohio Players "Love Roller Coaster," and Wild Cherry's "Play that Funky Music." And the funk just went on and on.
More than an hour later, he closed the show with The Time's "Jungle Love." I walked out of the arena feeling like I had just seen a show by a completely different performer than the one I'd seen Monday. I called Fetkuk to see if he wanted to play hookey from work so we could catch the next night's show. I was kind of bummed he'd seen Monday night's version instead of this one and now I was hyped to see what came next. He thought about it and then declined, but when I got home at around 1 in the morning I went online bought two tickets anyway, hoping the Femme Fatale would go with me.
The Femme was sick and irritable so I found myself looking for someone else to go with. It turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. After asking four people, the Minister's Rebellious Daughter texted me back after initially declining and wrote "What am I thinking? YES- if you still have the ticket."
I tried to dissuade her from seeing Graham Central Station but she was having none of it, so we met at the arena at 7:30. There were noticeably fewer people coming to this show and though I bought tickets for the same price for Monday's show, these were in the lower level and much better seats. In fact they were great seats. The first two shows were filled to the rafters all the way around the arena and completely sold-out. On Thursday night sides of the upper section were curtained-off and it was obvious two days notice wasn't enough to fill the hall, despite the online buzz about the previous night's set.
If you've read this blog for awhile, you may recall the Rebellious one and I go back a bit and we have some traditions, mostly centered around drinking copious amounts of liquor and going to the theater- usually in that order, though not always. As we stood in line for our second round of doubles (it was way past the starting time for Graham Central Station based on the previous nights) we ran into Anne Enigma- the only person I have a longer history with in the Bay Area than the Rebellious one. Introducing them to one another, I was suddenly acutely aware of how long I've lived here- the Rebellious one was a teenager when we met and Anne was a bit of a wild woman when she hit on me at the Holy Cow almost 20 years ago. Now Anne's married and has two kids and the Rebellious one runs her own successful business.
We were still in line for more booze when the lights went down at 8:30 and I thought this was going to be a long night if it was just getting started. But it wasn't Graham Central Station onstage, it was Prince, alone with his guitar, playing "The Love We Make." It was the first sign this show was going to be something altogether different than the other two.
For the next three hours Prince hardly left that guitar alone. The setlist had more than a dozen songs he didn't play during the previous shows, including "Nothing Compares 2 U" and "She's Always in My Hair."
"Guitar" however, was the key moment for this show, setting up everything that was to follow. Prince's skills on the guitar are often overlooked or under emphasized. That's to be expected I suppose for someone with so many other obvious talents and he himself downplayed them during the first show by barely playing the thing. But on Thursday he showed those skills off with a formidable display, turning "AnotherLoverHoleInYourHead" into a metallic jam, riffing on "Rock Lobster," rocking hard on "Alphabet Street" and issuing a blistering solo before Sheila E. took the stage to play the fiercest version of "The Glamorous Life" of the entire three night stand. He simply burned on guitar for almost every song.
When he eventually turned to the piano after a couple of hours, playing sampled bits "Darling Nikki" and "Single Ladies" among half a dozen others, the audience was going nuts. The Rebellious one proclaimed the Purple one to be "sexual chocolate and tiny porn" and said the entire audience wanted to have him (she put this slightly differently). For the duration of the show most of the audience remained on their feet. When it was actually all over- the encores featured at least eight songs- I was amazed.
Three nights, three completely different sets with very little overlap, and most impressively, three completely different performances that felt unlike the others. Who else can do that? I don't know, but the last night was one of the best performances I've ever seen. Considering all three together, I suspect it will be a long time before anyone impresses me as much as Prince did last week.