After years of commercial and critical struggle, Minneapolis' wild child and rude boy arrived. "Hello, Washington," he said teasingly. "My name is Prince. I've come to play with you."
Performing the first of seven sold-out Capital Centre shows last night, Prince proved that hot is as hot does. For 19,000 delirious and dancing fans, the opening chords of "Let's Go Crazy" proved to be as inspirational and defining as Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Something" several months ago. Ironically, in that brief period, one star has lost his allure and another has zoomed heavenward.
If the Jacksons misnamed their Victory Tour by failing to perform any tunes from that album, Prince has perhaps overcompensated by building his two-hour show almost wholly around "Purple Rain." This may be good marketing and safe art -- after all, the sound track album and the movie have both been tremendously successful -- but it's a ploy that does little to provide an authoritative overview of Prince or to celebrate the daring and experimental fusion of white rock 'n' roll and black dance funk that sets him apart.
It's also a curiously conservative move by an artist who has previously refused to be tied down to expectations. "Before the night is through/you will see my point of view," Prince promised. But you had to wonder, where's the "Controversy"? That was one of several outstanding songs missing in action last night, as well as one of the glaring failures.
Although his feline physique and mannerisms suggest a cat in heat, Prince all but toned down the x-aggerated explicitness of the past, even more so than he did in making the film.
His previous Washington concerts were famous for their libertine spirit and raucous funk 'n' roll, but the sinister trench coat and bikini briefs of yore have been traded in for a shiny white jump suit and various purple overgarments. Although there was more visceral energy here than at most rock concerts, Prince seemed more interested in consolidating his position than celebrating his reputation. As a result, he wasted a good third of the show teasing the audience (which loved it) with risque' patter and posture and all too little music. Which is too bad, because during this segment, much of it spent at the piano, Prince showed the mesmerizing parameters of his voice.
After opening with "Let's Go Crazy," Prince swept into three party-oriented songs from his previous album, "1999," including the funkabilly "Delirious" and the metaphorically suggestive "Little Red Corvette." Besides laying down some killer rhythms and irresistible melodic hooks, Prince payed homage to James Brown in a series of splits, spins and high-steps, with the band having to work hard at being the JBs.
Shifting from guitar to piano, Prince did a rather unnecessary "Father's Song" instrumental vamp and an eloquent, albeit brief version of "Free," an autobiographical anthem about dreams and ambitions, which he apparently knows something about.
Prince's celebrated clash of spiritual and sexual compulsions was most evident during this section of the concert, as he tested his newfound sexual idolization, pandering and prospering without much musical reference. Then he did "God," a piece that began as an instrumental but has since gained words and elevated its spirituality; Prince moved from soft falsettos to melismatic fury in the pure gospel tradition.
To further confuse the issue, he asked, "What's the difference between good and evil? God!" and then segued immediately into "Do you want to take a bath with me?" Receiving close to 19,000 affirmative responses, Prince went up a stairway, stripped off his shirt, stepped into a spotlit bathtub and laid his head on the tub's edge as the lights slowly dimmed. This was positively PG, but a long way from the provocative R people experienced on earlier tours.
It used to be hard enough to make hits without also having to make videos, but in the last year many rock artists have taken to theatricalizing their concert performances, convinced that audiences are now listening as much with their eyes as with their ears. Unfortunately, the tendency is then to put too much weight on the visual vehicle, to the point that much of Prince's show seemed lifted from his own film.
Overall, Prince's protosexual Rabelaisian antics seemed toned down even from the film, and he often stretched to make his manner seem uninhibited. Then again, Prince inhabits his paradoxes quite comfortably.
Not surprisingly, the show's best moments echoed the film's best moments. The nasty "Darlin' Nikki," "I Would Die 4 U" and a surprisingly funky "Baby I'm a Star" (complete with spewing guitar) were all performed with gusto, while "When Doves Cry" proved to be not only Prince's most personal song, but also one of his most structurally intriguing as well. Also impressive was a sinewy rendition of "The Beautiful Ones."
And then of course, there's "Purple Rain," a genuinely haunting piece that seems part Hendrix, part Lennon and all Prince. In the film, "Purple Rain" provides an emotional catharsis for the Kid, and it seemed to do the same for Prince. His singing was gut-wrenching, his guitar solo ethereal and soul-crunching at the same time.
On the down side, Prince's new band, the Revolution, is simply not as good as the one that backed him on earlier tours, particularly unconvincing on the steamy funk grooves of his best dance numbers. There was also too much reliance on pre-recorded tracks (mostly drum), but the major disappointment was the exclusion of so much outstanding earlier material.
Other pluses: The band, like the audience, was racially and sexually integrated, and that's a hopeful sign in pop music. The set, one of the first to make effective use of wind machines, suggested the Minneapolis club where "Purple Rain" takes place without trying to transform the Capital Centre into an intimate venue (and too bad the Tel-Screen wasn't being used).
Sheila E., Prince's reported paramour, opened the show with a percussively riveting set that too often descended into intimations of a rock Charo, though the singer is a genuinely effusive and energetic percussionist. Her best moments, not surprisingly, came on her big hit, "The Glamorous Life," and Prince's "Erotic City," a swirl of rhythm and bluster that set the mood for the evening.
Still, one couldn't help feeling that Prince could have, and in fact should have, done better in terms of pacing, song selection and just plain celebrating himself. Too often he let his stereoscope imagination cover for the hard work and invention that got him to the Capital Centre in the first place. It's the kind of indulgence one expects from heavy metal mavens, not from an artist with a genuinely personal vision. Relentlessly prowling the stage, Prince kept promising, "Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999," but in the end he seemed more worried about a midnight curfew.