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Having never seen Prince live before, if you’d told me that he was actually a just work of fiction I probably wouldn’t have found it that unbelievable. He’s an artist who has spent his life behind a veil of mythology; having only rare contact with the press, often limited to bizarre soundbites (“time is a construct of the mind”), his real personality largely obscured by baffling name changes and grandiose life choices. It wouldn’t seem that outlandish to find out he was actually just a mythical creature, a construct of collective consciousness - albeit one attached to one of the strongest back catalogues in pop music history.
This may be a bit of a far-out statement, but it goes some of the way to explaining why it’s so uniquely exciting witnessing this short-in-stature, seemingly-ageless man step take the stage for the first time. It’s closer to what you’d imagine it’d be like to be creeping around the house late-night on Christmas Eve and accidentally catch Santa Clause mid-act than any gig-going experience. He radiates stage presence in a rare way.
Straight off one thing that often gets lost among the rock mythology becomes immediately apparent - more than anything, Prince is one of the most professional and slick performers in the world. The set starts with a ‘soundcheck’, but to call it such gives off the wrong idea - where other artists would hastily bash out some guitar chords and mumble something about their monitors in the direction of the sound desk, Prince has his band launch into unreleased track ‘We Live 2 Get Funky’ while he struts around the stage, giving audio instructions to the tech crew (“warm up those mid-ranges”) and checking the levels with the sort of energy other artists put into playing their biggest hit.
To call the two-and-a-half hour set that follows flawless would be inaccurate - there are unnecessary moments in there, so let’s get those out of the way first. For one thing, it’s doubtful that anyone in the crowd is really excited when Prince leaves the stage mid-set to allow the female members of his band to lead a rendition of Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’. Similarly, even Prince can’t make a funk version of The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ work. But you can’t help but feel that these moments of self-indulgence come with the territory and, tonight at least, they’re forgivable.
Given his track record and unpredictability there’s always a danger that a Prince set is going to take some b-road of covers, obscurities and jam sessions that circumnavigates the classics altogether. Fortunately as soon as - post-soundcheck - he punctuates a hanging synth chord by diving into the opening monologue of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ it’s clear the evening isn’t going to be short on hits. The run of songs that follows is nothing short of brilliant - ‘1999’ and ‘Cream’ are obvious crowd pleasers while a slowed-down and stretched-out ‘Little Red Corvette’ sees Prince really getting into his stride.
Just as captivating as the songs, however, are the glimpses of Prince’s personality. Of course, the eccentricities are there - his peculiar need to inform us that “this is real music” every couple of minutes, and repeated demands that the stage lights be turned off. But it’s the flashes of humanity that are most fascinating; the fond glances he exchanges with old friend (and guest for the second of his three encores) Larry Graham and his witty quips that follow ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (“that song bought me a house”).
For all its predictability it’s ‘Purple Rain’, which closes the main body of the set, that provides the standout moment. It’s the sort of arena rock, high-gloss performance that is nigh-on impossible to pull off without feeling embarrassingly cheesy, yet in Prince’s hands it was never going to fail. He may have been milking crowd singalongs and false endings out of the song for decades already, but when canons of purple confetti fire off as he bends into the first note of the guitar solo it near enough impossible not to feel some emotional engagement with the song.
As he rounds off the set sprawled across the lid of a purple grand piano for a rendition of ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ it goes without saying there’s no pop artist in the world quite like Prince. For all the weirdness and unpredictability the man is in a league of his own. Even after seeing it all with my own eyes, I’m no closer to being convinced that he’s not just a figment of our imaginations.
image from Wikipedia
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