Sound the funky horns and loosen up those groove thangs: His Royal Badness is finally back just the way we like him.
Silly, flirty and flashing nary a sign of the nuttiness that made him a tough sell for too long, a charming Prince kicked off his three-night stand at the MCI Center Thursday, lathering up the sold-out venue with 21/2 hours of vicious jams, endless hits and a show-closing guitar solo that would have made an exotic dancer blush.
Well, a sweet, innocent exotic dancer at least. The wee powerhouse is a Jehovah's Witness now, and his sex-charged antics aren't nearly as explicit as they used to be. There's no place on this tour for, say, those infamous bum-revealing pants he used to shock with. (Just as well: The X-shaped stage was placed in the middle of the arena, and that would have made for serious fanny overload.) Such NC-17 tunes as "Darling Nikki," featuring the titular tease and her naughty magazine, have been stricken from the set list. And when Prince summoned a wicked bass line on "I Feel for You," the sing-along smash he wrote for Chaka Khan, his attraction to a paramour was now a "spiritual thing" instead of a "physical" one.
But even a pure-of-mind Prince still can't help but excel at baby-making grooves. Opening number "Musicology," the title track from his new album, is a shout-out to James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the sexiest pieces of pure funk he has written. And when Prince took a 45-minute solo acoustic turn at the set's halfway point, strumming out some of his biggest hits ("Little Red Corvette," "I Wanna Be Your Lover," "Raspberry Beret") plus a blues gag about his supposedly regular-guy domestic life ("Ooh, she's got a headache for 17 months!"), the vibe in the arena was still very much electric.
The ageless 46-year-old's newfound piety has apparently made the man more, well, normal. His litany of lunacy -- the Magic Markered mug, the tedious musical experimentation, the doodle-pad art he chose for a name -- has been left in the past. Clad in blousy silk jackets and pants that gave him plenty of room to strut, spin and slide, he grinned and laughed all night long. He crooned a quick reference to his past troubles with the record industry -- "Warner Brothers used to be a friend of mine / Now they're nothing but a monumental waste of time" -- but quickly flashed a "whatever" smile.
He frequently invited women of all ages and sizes onstage, at one point weaving among some 15 lucky ladies. And he routinely asked his fans -- a veritable Benetton ad of hip-hoppers, metalheads, jazz buffs, you name it -- to join him in song by hoisting high a gun-shaped gold microphone.
Not that his loyal "true funk soldiers" needed encouragement: With all worries erased that he'd forever gone the way of Michael Jackson, Prince is once again the most seductive -- and, surprise surprise, most personable -- entertainer working today.
Although he can play just about any instrument invented, Prince thrills in indulging one of the best backing bands in the land. His horn section alone -- featuring all-world saxophonists Maceo Parker and Candy Dulfer and too-cool trombone man Greg Boyer -- was worth the price of admission. In the night's funniest moment, during a raging "Controversy," Prince and Parker went head to head, guitar vs. sax. That is, until Prince dropped his ax, screamed, "Maceo, you ain't gonna kill me!" and mock-pouted in an onstage velour chair, plugging his ears at the encouraging crowd noise.
His constantly moving eight-member ensemble, called the New Power Generation and fueled by sticks-a-twirling drummer John Blackwell, was so stop-on-a-dime tight and so well-versed in myriad genres that Prince could summon wild tempo shifts with just a subtle nod of his well-coiffed head (and wow, it's such a giant head for such a little body). Smoother than a DJ spinning vinyl, the band could drop in a teasing sample of a song -- say, the start of "1999" -- then smoothly segue into something else.
When the extended funk of "Musicology" stopped with one seamless "Unh!," Prince didn't miss a beat: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today . . ." he instantly preached over a keyboard drone, sending the crowd into sheer delirium with the spoken-word intro of "Let's Go Crazy." At the end of the rock rave, he pointed to the rafters, and a blizzard of confetti rained on the masses. The flittering scraps of celebration were still falling when Prince, his octave-spanning voice still in mint condition, one-two punched with the dance confection "I Would Die 4 U" and an extra-slinky "When Doves Cry."
Almost every minute of the show was designed to keep backfields in motion. After the acoustic set, the final chunk of the evening was a full-band assault of faves: "7," "Pop Life," "U Got the Look," "Kiss."
And then came that utterly love-sexy solo during the inevitable encore cut, "Purple Rain." As lighters were lit and the throngs ooh, ooh, ooh, oohed, Prince cradled in his nimble hands an altogether naughty purple guitar that looked like his symbol moniker, albeit with a long, winding tail that left little to the imagination. As the li'l wizard picked out the dreamy chords that have ended so many high school dances, he sounded like Jimi Hendrix. But even better, as he caressed that instrument in a steamy (but monogamous, of course) embrace, he looked like the Prince we've waited so long to love again.