ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre
Wednesday, February 24
It took Prince a long time to come to New Zealand. He once announced a show here in the mid-90s (I had a ticket by the way), within a week or so it was cancelled. Three weeks ago, out of nowhere, he announced a show, solo, just Prince and his piano and microphone; his latest tour. Turns out, actually, it’s Prince, his piano, his microphone and some iPad-coaxed string-treatments. (It’s clever enough just seeing him lift a hand to hit the trigger-spots at the right time).
There’s an awesome build-up, a buzz. Strangers chatting to one another in line waiting to get into the venue. And then chatting while we wait for the show to start – well, under strict orders, cell-phones were to remain in pockets, it forced us to chat to the person in the next seat.
Then the lights go down and we see the afro, a silhouette, he has his Willy Wonka-like cane, you half expect, as he saunter-swags to the piano, that he might throw the walking stick up high, forward-roll and catch it, maybe even between his teeth. Nothing would surprise you with Prince.
He opens the show with I Would Die For U, and part of Baby I’m A Star. Back to I Would Die 4 U, into Little Red Corvette…
Sometimes he stands up at the piano, almost bunting in its general direction. Corvette interpolates Dirty Mind, but most of Prince’s dirty stuff is off-limits now, or it’s been recast as being about “self-preservation”. (Cue Cream).
It’s new gospel readings of old favourites. We get I Feel For You. My god. We get to hear the songs we didn’t know we loved quite so much. The Most Beautiful Girl In The World feels like the best Prince song ever written. At least until he plays something/anything else.
Prince – like Todd Rundgren before him – is guitar hero but also piano star. Some of his fans might be getting a lesson in just how great he is at sitting down and tinkling these 88 keys.
The voice: incredible – and so much more than just that. It cascades. It dances across the octaves, it’s on some pond-skimming dance as it moves from Sly Stone’s nearly-baritone to the falsetto reach, a bit of gritty-screech in there too. He buries songs inside other songs, It – from Sign O’ The Times – resides, tonight, inside Thieves In The Temple. He starts with Temple, moves to It, back to Temple, back to It, you get the feeling that he’s at the whim of his own whimsy, finding his inner jukebox as he traverses the keys, reminding himself, and therefore his audience (and therefore – in that order) of so many great songs.
It’s a mocked-up cabaret-gospel hour.
But what it is, and this point can’t be stressed enough, is a masterclass in virtuosic talent. I’ve never, in 30+ years of fandom, in 20+ years of music-writing, ever seen such virtuosity built entirely around and in further support of song-craft. I’ve seen so many of the great guitarists and drummers – and, well, all sorts of instrumentalists – hit down hard at their instruments. But never have I seen that with such an emphasis on the songwriting.
Controversy, and Forever In My Life and a bit of Venus De Milo and just a hint of The Question of U before we’re whisked off into other worlds, sometimes via medleys, always with a focus on the melodies: Prince is so many things – and chiefly, yes, a genius. But he’s a pop songwriter. A crafter of weird and wonderful (usually in that order) songs. A master of stage-craft too.
We were up and down like yo-yos, a song in our seats, and one up and awkwardly clapping almost-along.
He called us on it when we weren’t quite together (Cream). But he also knew that this, white and uncool and largely rhythm-less audience had helped him get paid across so many years. He never mocked us, even though some of us were only there to hear the most obvious of hits.
He also gave us new gospel vamps across Girls and Boys, he recast Pop Life, made it less light and breezy, kept all of its zest, the new songs (from Hit’n’Run Phase Two – handed out at the door after) were good. Quite good. So good – actually…Rocknroll Loveaffair and Black Muse meaning nearly as much in this context as Take Me With U and Condition of The Heart. And if they didn’t quite mean as much to the audience they certainly meant as much to Prince. That was the first real take-home: he loves to do this – still. It’s his thrill to play. As he said, at one point, mid-set, music makes any day okay.
Banter was light, but he was aware, mischievous, alert. He liked us, he liked that we liked him, he knew this was special for us, he bathed in the applause once or twice and worked his ass off to earn it – even though many of us would have given it anyway.
It was the hits from the 80s that resonated with most – for most of the time. But there were always surprises. And recast, like this, several 90s and 00s songs sounded as good as the “magic” years.
He hit on funky grooves, and rode them hard. He told us, as his fingers danced, that he was feeling it. We knew that already.
Had an hour passed? Or was time stopped – as barrelhouse piano became funk, moved through stride and jazz and classical to re-class as funk proponents for a pop-writing master.
And that voice. Always that voice. Forever In My Life – a bit-part player in the songs when lined up on Sign O’ The Times – sounded nearly-ferocious, certainly had added bite.
Purple Rain was missing its glorious guitar goes on-and-onanism – but also it wasn’t. Because it felt like home. It sounded like church. This was church. This was music in the way that Prince has always wanted to serve it: music appreciation, a spotlight on the tune, a hope for the congregation to join in as choir. To then walk away uplifted.
After the set-closing Purple Rain he returned to throw down Raspberry Beret – as if showing off. And Black Sweat. And Kiss. And Paisley Park. He said, “can I stay for a bit?” milking the shrieks. He said, “Will you play with me, I’ve got a lot of hits”. And he disappeared, to return and play Nothing Compares 2 U.
And nothing compares 2 Prince. I used up my “best concert I’ll ever see” line on Leonard Cohen. I don’t regret that, it was a vibe – something I felt, going in. That audience had waited, and wanted Cohen’s words and world and music. But Prince is something else – he had it right to open singing, “I am something that you’ll never understand”.
I got to see Prince in my lifetime. Which makes almost anything else I go on to endure okay. That he was this good – at this time. I never could have (quite) predicted that. Hoped for it, of course – I’ve been a lifelong fan – but this really was something quite incredible. He’s a freak. A master. A guy who seems as in love with music as he ever was. And at least as good as he ever was too.
I’m sure we all left in love with new (old) Prince tunes, and wondering, too, if this new version of him – solo, piano – might lead to a new awakening, a new version of Prince on record; a new set of highlights from a career already loaded up with an embarrassment of riches.