With the digital universe continuously crying out for our exponentially divided attention, we are living in hyperbolic times. So it’s good to be reminded what The Best Thing Ever truly looks, sounds, shimmies, shakes and shrieks like.
That would be Prince. He gave two shows at Washington’s relatively cozy Warner Theatre on Sunday night and burned so much energy during his first hundred minutes on stage that it’s hard to imagine what he did for the second set. (Social media gloaters/rejoicers say he brought Stevie Wonder onstage for a jam about 1 a.m.)
And according to a more elite level of Twitter braggarts, Wonder and Prince had performed together on Saturday night, too — at a private party on the South Lawn of the White House. Prince confirmed it Sunday at the Warner, offering his warmest words for the first family. “They were very cool to us, and I hope you’re proud of them because we are,” he said. “They’re doing the best they can.”
Considering how this man has spent decades hiding in the purple fog of mystique, it has been invigorating to see Prince so deeply engaged with the present. He contributed one of the only meaningful moments at February’s Grammy Awards by reminding 25 million television viewers that “black lives still matter.” Last month, he touched down in a freshly scarred Baltimore to perform a benefit concert that included a new song written in honor of the late Freddie Gray.
Aside from a few raised fists, Prince’s politics weren’t so overt early Sunday night. But the level of ecstatic uplift in the room still felt radical. “I see you dancing,” he said, pointing to the balcony. “I want to hear you sing!” Already bursting at its seams with goodwill, the theater found a way to get a little higher.
So, yeah, this was a totally killer Prince show — not breaking news exactly. But in an era when we fawn over pop celebs with such thoughtless breathlessness, a gig this masterful invites our dizzy brains to think hard about greatness. Is Prince the best person who has ever done this whole music thing? Who else can channel so much — James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, P-Funk, all funk — while still being entirely himself? Who else delivers this much vitality? Who else has given us this much for this long?
And who else goes jumping off speakers at the age of 57? Who else looks this great doing it? (As if to match his messy Hendrix-style afro, he wore a black tunic that looked leather but flowed like silk, which means it might be made from a fabric available exclusively to Prince.)
His flexible backing troupe included as many as 12 players and as few as three — his current core band, 3rdeyegirl, is made up of guitarist Donna Grantis, bassist Ida Kristine Nielsen and drummer Hannah Welton.
And sometimes it was zero, like when Prince took a solo turn at the keys to sing tenderly truncated versions of “Diamonds and Pearls” and “The Beautiful Ones.”
His set was almost entirely made up of oldies-goodies, but the alterations he made to his biggest hits felt impromptu, giving the evening a kick of spontaneity. “Let’s Go Crazy” was slowed to a delicious grind that resembled the ur-metal of Black Sabbath, while 1984’s “When Doves Cry” was dismantled into a sinister electro-funk skeleton. Nasty, nasty stuff.
Some old lyrics felt new, too. His 1981 hit “Controversy” asked, “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?”
Written before Prince was a superstar, the song originally addressed the friction between celebrity titillation and tabloid speculation. But in 2015, a few weeks after America met Caitlyn Jenner, and 48 hours after it met Rachel Dolezal, “Controversy” felt like a meditation on utopia beyond identity politics. “I wish there was no black and white,” Prince sang. “I wish there were no rules.”
There was one rule: all phones off and away. Security guards prowled the aisles like brawny flight attendants, threatening to eject anyone whose facial glow came courtesy of Apple.
That kind of crowd-policing is usually a vibe-flattener, but here it was a good thing. Instead of recording wobbly video during the set-closer, “Purple Rain,” the crowd threw its hands to the ceiling and ooooh-ooooh-ooh-ooooh’ed with church-grade passion at stadium-grade volumes.
As for Prince, he delivered the first two verses way behind the beat, dragging his musical heels, as if staving off his departure, as if he didn’t want this thing to end, either.