One night over thirty years ago, in my hometown of Stockholm, I stood standing in the fifth row of a huge concert venue. I was panting, with tears running down my face. Prince has just ended his gig in a way that a reviewer later described as "an interrupted intercourse".
Closing time, and the ugly lights came on.
The girl next to me extended a bouquet of flowers to one of the roadies, who was already breaking down the set.
"Can you give these to Him?"
"Oh, he's out of here already. Probably halfway back to the hotel..."
Prince hit the stage that night like a half-naked hurricane, masturbating his guitar for a couple of hours as if he was starring in his own peep-show and didn't really care if we watched. Then he was finished. And, apparently, so were we. I walked out in the winter night feeling cold, shaken, happy, and frustrated.
Prince's connection with his audience has strengthened as the years have turned to decades. I've had the opportunity to see him many times, and in recent years he's taken to making eye contact with the crowd, cracking jokes, telling stories, and stage diving. Behavior that would have been unimaginable thirty years ago.
So I went to the Paramount Theatre Sunday night with high expectations for his “Piano & a Microphone” show, hoping to witness yet another level of his performance talent.
For this show Prince peeled off all the extras, perhaps, because as he said, "I get so many good reviews, I need a challenge!" There’s no band, no dancing, no inviting cute women up on stage. Just the artist and his deep well of material and experience.
Did it work? Yes and no.
Prince never seems to fail, at least not in public. Even while ad-libbing and improvising, he's always in total control, leaving nothing to chance. Thus his performance was, of course, perfect, weaving a tapestry of old hits and newer songs, adding gospel and barrelhouse quirkiness to create a flowing river of music that sucks you in and transports you to distant, funky lands. “I Could Never Take The Place Of You Man” meanders into “If I Was Your Girlfriend” then suddenly erupts into some song I’ve never heard before, which then segues into "Sometimes It Snows In April." I'm not even sure it was in that order -- to jot down a set-list for this gig would have been damn near impossible.
And there are moments when I truly lost myself. His slow version of “Little Red Corvette” had me on the edge of my seat, re-living every bad date I’ve ever been on, and “The Beautiful Ones” made me hold my breath. At times I imagined myself watching Mozart perform an edgy, ground-breaking piece for a crowd of adoring Viennese, all of whom are fully aware they're watching history in the making.
But there are problems.
The Paramount Theatre holds 3000 people and my $313 ticket bought me a seat in the back of the orchestra. From there, Prince is a mere body at a piano, with only the big afro hinting that it’s him. The only thing I had to rest me eyes on was the psychedelic light show playing non-stop throughout, but beautiful as it was it often left the artist himself in darkness.
While that sense of remoteness, which creates a kind of sensation that Prince is an untouchable idol, works fine in a high energy rock concert setting, it didn't go over well in the Paramount. Instead it left a sense of aloofness, as if it doesn’t really matter to him if the audience is there at all. And maybe it doesn’t. As the writer formerly known as John Marcher pointed out in an earlier post, Prince made a shitload of money from this gig. One almost gets the feeling that he just decided to step out of the house for a night of positive affirmations and to pay off some bills.
What the “Piano & a Microphone” format really lacks is intimacy. For the show to work as intended the audience needs to see that spark in Prince’s eyes, that mischievous smile that comes over him when he suddenly decides to sneak a nursery-rime into one of his songs. Most of us at the Paramount couldn’t even see what he was wearing.
Does Prince care? Probably not. Or maybe that is the "challenge" he says he’s been looking for: on Friday he'll bring the format to the Oracle Arena, a substantially bigger venue with an audience will likely be at least three or four times the size of Sunday's.
However, there's no doubt that regardless of the format, with a band or without one, he knows how to end a gig properly. After a couple of encores, he returned to the stage walking backwards and coyly admitted “I just had to do one more song!” And now the true gospel is on -- within minutes Prince turned the Paramount into an evangelical prayer meeting for 3000 people, the devotees present, singing and clapping as if he's Jesus Christ on wheels.
“Free! Free yourself! You gotta free yourself!” he sang, and the audience did, letting him work us into a state of frenzy. Then he waved good-bye and left. And we continued singing by ourselves for a long time.
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