LIVE REPORT: Prince In Manchester
, February 24th, 2014 10:17
John Tatlock once danced so hard at a Prince gig that he broke his leg. We send him to see the great man and 3RDEYEGIRL to see what breaks this time around
For any musician with a long enough career, there comes a point when their audience's desire to hear the old material starts to outweigh their interest in the new. And any performer with an ounce of genuine creativity left in them will inevitably feel the urge to kick against this.
Prince got there around the mid-90s. His albums still to this day to contain some killer material, but the no-filler pop brilliance of every LP from 1999 to Sign O The Times (and arguably Lovesexy too) had given way to a series of more erratic collections. And increasingly, his live audience wanted to hear the 80s classics above all else.
Prince fans can be especially ardent and forgiving (I should know, I am one), but he did some fairly thorough loyalty-testing around this time; the misleadingly-named "Ultimate Live Experience" tour featured only songs from the underwhelming Gold Experience LP and various B-sides and oddities, mostly stretched into interminable jams. No 'Kiss', no 'Purple Rain', no concessions to the casual fan, and not many more even to the devoted.
By the early 2000s, the likes of 'Take Me With U' and 'Raspberry Beret' were starting to creep back into the set, but on the other hand, the tendency towards long-winded jazz-fusion flavoured jamming had gone off the deep end.
Of course, the next thing that happens to any artist with a long enough career is that they start to make peace with their legacy (and also probably realise this gigging lark is loads more fun when the crowd are absolutely losing their minds and dancing hard enough to break their own leg - as I did at one of the o2 shows in 2007).
By seven or eight years ago, the word was out that once again, a Prince show was a wall-to-wall hits extravaganza that you could comfortably drag a non-fan to and walk out with a slavering convert.
This is fine for a while of course, but then the third thing that happens is that such an act turns into The Who, listlessly lurching around arenas, palpably bored, with a setlist unchanged for literally decades on end. The next logical step, I suppose, is to do what Queen have done, and pay some other buggers to go out and play your songs while you relax at home.
Prince, as mercurial as ever, seems to have headed this potential stagnation off at the pass, and then some. Dispensing with the expanded dancers 'n' singers 'n' brass players 'n' guest stars line ups of recent years, his current 3RDEYEGIRL band comprises himself, the astonishingly skilled trio of Donna Grantis, Ida Nielsen and Hannah Welton on guitar, bass and drums respectively, and rarely-mentioned sometime fifth member Joshua Welton bouncing around from keyboards to percussion to, well, jumping up and down and grinning (as you would).
Much has been said about this being a "back-to-basics" rock tour, but that's only true in Princely terms. In reality, this is a finely-polished and musically diverse show, and Prince doesn't shy away from breaking out the samplers and drum machines amid the strobe lights, slideshows and dry ice. If this was coming from anyone else, you'd immediately see it for the genre-clashing multi-media spectacle it actually is. By Prince standards, it's practically garage rock. But I imagine Prince has an extremely salubrious garage.
All that said, the way the band set out their stall leaves a powerful impression. The first half hour of tonight's show is pretty much straight up metal-with-a-capital-horns-salute, including a grinding, Sabbath-paced chug through 'Let's Go Crazy', providing a half-familiar breather in the middle of an all-new-songs, all-hard-as-nails run.
There's a fair bit of show-off soloing from both Prince and Grantis, but it leans far more towards Hendrix-like flash and Thin Lizzy melodicism than the ponderous noodling that has blighted some of his bigger band configurations. Indeed, despite the obvious skill of the performers, this is his least muso and most gang-like band since The Revolution. Accordingly, the air of playful campness and androgyny from prime-era Revolution is back. Seeing Prince play with Maceo Parker and Larry Graham on recent tours was of course a wonder to behold, but it's refreshing to not have all that weight of (straight, male) history threatening to collapse the stage.
It's also notable that he shares the guitar limelight with Grantis, to a degree he has with nobody since Wendy Melvoin, and hands her lead duties on several of his signature guitar heroics tracks, an opportunity she does audacious things with. In place of his low-key bluesey licks on 'Sign O The Times', she inserts jagged slabs of dissonant noise; wherever Prince is stuck behind the piano, she shows no qualms about attempting to cheekily upstage him, which he gleefully indulges like a proud older sibling.
Conversely, some other songs are shorn of their more bombastic trimmings. Purple Rain has lost its stadium rock instrumental sections and become an intimate tear-jerker, and a similar trick is pulled with 'The Beautiful Ones', reworked into a delicate solo piano piece. But on the other hand again, the sparse and otherworldly 'Forever In My Life' has sprouted a twangling bass solo, and the minimalist jerky electronic of 'Something In The Water' has become a louche, lush funk drawl.
As the three-hour, forty-song show continues, it becomes clear what Prince is doing; he's playing the hits, for sure (and the B-sides, and the album tracks, and the new stuff), but everything here is completely refreshed, re-imagined, tightened up and flab-free.
This then, is no heritage show, no creatively bankrupt tired slog through the old moves. This is the smartest approach to the back catalogue dilemma I've ever seen, played with boundless energy by a 55-year old performer who can still party like he's just turned 29. There's simply no other live act in the world playing at this level.