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Three Songs No Flash

An Aura Of The Mythic: Prince Live, By Simon Price
Simon Price , April 21st, 2016 18:09

In the wake of the sad news of his passing, revisit the time self-confessed Prince nutter Simon Price witnessed the first proper gig of the great man's surprise London takeover (and a second one the same night)

I was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if it goes astray... There is, after all, invariably something oneiric and unreal about witnessing a Prince concert. For a start, the very notion that this ageless (his birth certificate says 55, but his appearance and agility laugh in the face of such banal facts) and outrageously gifted being exists on the same plane as us rather than some unreachable parallel universe, that - technically and taxonomically at least - he shares a species, genus, phylum and clade with Bruno Mars, with Piers Morgan, with Rihanna, with Danny Dyer, with you, with me, with every humdrum one of us - seems fanciful. He's one of the few figures in popular culture who genuinely exudes the aura of the mythic. A mate of mine, who once danced so hard at a Prince gig that he broke his leg, once told me that "Prince is like Spiderman or something", and I completely understand what he meant.

This isn't the first time I'll write that the existence of Prince is the single biggest challenge to my atheism, and it won't be the last. And I'm certainly not referring to Prince's own spiritual beliefs. If genius is about inspired flashes of lateral thinking and the connecting of the previously unconnected, then Prince has it like South Georgia has penguins. Something in the way he plucks ideas from the ether - the ghostly absence of a bassline on 'When Doves Cry' being only the first example to blow my mind - speaks of the uncanny and the supernatural rather than the workaday and learnable. Common genius has lightbulb moments over its head. Prince has the Aurora Borealis crackling round his cranium. To paraphrase another admirer, we see the crescent. He sees the whole of the moon. The greatest musical genius of the last 50 years, hands down. Yeah, we all had fun fussing over Bowie last year, but 2014 is hereby declared Prince Year (Prince being "my Bowie" anyway). Daddy's back in town.

The other sense in which this particular gig feels like some sort of improbable reverie happens right at the very start. After a walk-on to a pre-recorded 'Pretzelbodylogic', a backs-to-the-audience band line-up and a saucy turn of the head, we're straight into 'Let's Go Crazy' in its new 'redux' form, but with the old Hendrix-esque finale. As the strobes flash through the smoke and Prince's silhouette delivers that fretboard fanfare to a forest of raised arms, just yards from your eyes, you feel like you've stepped through the screen of the opening scene of Purple Rain and straight into the crowd at the First Avenue club in that film's semi-fictional 1980s Minneapolis. Which is, if I'm going to be honest, all I've ever wanted from life.

Let's rewind. This much we know for sure: late last year, word leaked that Prince was considering visiting the UK to play smaller-than-usual venues. This January, it was confirmed that he would be playing a number of shows in "iconic" venues the following month. This Tuesday, he pitched up in the living room of London soul-jazz singer Lianne La Havas, with whom he has struck up a friendship, to play a couple of acoustic songs with his backing band 3rdEyeGirl and to outline the plans for his "open-ended" stay. "We'll work our way up, if people like us, to bigger venues," the coy old bastard announced. "We're going to be here until people don't want to hear us any more."

On tonight's evidence, he might as well burn his passport. Late on Tuesday night, he played an "open soundcheck" at the Electric Ballroom to a few hundred fans and press, and so many people have queued up on Camden High St from first thing Wednesday morning that he has to play two separate gigs that evening to accommodate them all. I watch them both, and it's an unlimited joy to see the look on people's faces as they, like me on so many past occasions, have their "Oh my god, we're actually watching Prince!" moment.

Not that his arrival in London has passed off without negative comment. Controversy is more than just an album title where Prince is concerned, and he trails a certain amount of ill-feeling in his wake, about suing and about queuing.

Prince recently filed a lawsuit against 22 individuals who run websites, some Prince-specific and some general-interest, for $1 million each for breaching his copyright by posting unofficial concert videos and download links for bootleg recordings. Suing your own fans never plays well - just ask Metallica - but it is, let's face it, highly unlikely that Prince will really go after the fans in question for the dollars, and far more likely that the legal action will function as a de facto cease-and-desist order, a warning shot across the bows. While it's true Prince has, in the past, been notoriously anti-internet, in recent years he's shown evidence of warming to the idea of using it. New music has been directly disseminated via semi-official websites, the 3rdEyeGirl YouTube account has uploaded concert clips, and let's face it, the wildfire speed of social media like Twitter is what's making these short-notice London shows possible.

The real issue here, for Prince, isn't money, but complete artistic control. That's what painting 'SLAVE' on his face at the Grammys was all about. That's what changing his name to a symbol was all about. And that's what the pointedly prominent "Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince" on the sleeve of 1978's For You, a then-unprecedented level of independence for an unproven teenage artist on a major record label, was all about. And most true Prince fans completely get that. When, during tonight's second song 'Funk N Roll', he yells “Put your phone down, get your party on”, there are huge cheers, which are repeated before the later show when 3rdEyeGirl encourage us to "Put your phones down and participate... be here with us tonight, not through a glowing screen!”

There's also been a degree of ill-feeling around this guerilla-gigging adventure itself. Standing in the open air for hours on end is no fun in the British climate in February, there's talk of a few people getting trampled in the unruly melee, and it's certainly rough on fans who miss out because they either don't live in London or require notice to make plans because they have families and jobs to consider. On the other hand, there's an argument that it's unusually democratic system when compared to a regular arena concert wherein all the good seats are instantly bought en bloc by one of the rip-off corporate intermediaries and the rest are snapped up by those with the biggest bank balance and fastest phone fingers. These semi-secret shows at the Electric Ballroom, with admission at £10 on a (mostly) first-come, first-served basis, are arguably more democratic and fan-friendly, rewarding dedication and perseverance. In any case, with Prince and his entourage staying in London for the whole month of February, rumours strongly suggest that there'll be every kind of show, from tiny Soho jazz joints to major theatres, and everyone will get their chance eventually. And the sheer glee with which they gallop onto the Ballroom's venerable wooden dancefloor suggests that most people who endured the elements consider it worth the wait.

By now, you won't be surprised when I tell you that I agree. I like to flatter myself that I'm a man of wide musical tastes, but when someone asks me to name the best gigs I've ever seen, I'm almost embarrassed to answer that the top three are all by Prince: the Hop Farm festival in 2011, the 21 Nights residency at the O2 in 2007, the Lovesexy tour at Wembley Arena in 1988. But as well as those public extravaganzas, I've also attended several of his legendary after-hours secret shows - I vividly recall the one at the Astoria with guests George Benson and Chaka Khan, the one at a warehouse in Kings Cross where he led his band through instrumental funk workouts with his back to the audience, and the one at the Camden Palace where he climbed on balcony to dance with the fans - and tonight's two performances rank alongside the best of those.

In a stylish black gilet, tassled arm-cuffs and bubble afro, pulling comedy scowls and sexfaces. he's clearly loving his new minimalist modus operandi. If Prince's previous backing bands, from The Revolution through the NPG to other, nameless incarnations, has often resembled a full-scale funk orchestra, with the odd legendary JBs saxophonist or Family Stone bassist tacked on, then 3rdEyeGirl is as back-to-basics as he's ever likely to get. Prince has a long history of female band members stretching back to Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman and Sheila E, and despite some of the costumes they've been obliged to wear, they've never merely been Robert Palmer-style eye candy. 3rdEyeGirl, demonically great musicians all, comprise drummer Hannah Ford (a Nancy Spungen blonde), bassist Ida Nielson (pigtails, Venetian mask) and guitarist Donna Grantis (punk rock undercut). The male keyboardist, in context, feels entirely token.

The bare stage set - just a few of those fake flame-effect lamps you see billowing outside Mayfair restaurants - is mirrored by the stripped-down nature of the noise 3rdEyeGirl make. If Prince has always frolicked in the crosstown traffic between soul and rock & roll, this band lurch way to the rock side of the road. It's a pleasingly sludgy, grungy, physical, hard-riffing, head-nodding sound, like an unusually proficient garage band led by the most talented musician on earth.

Hits are scarce in the first gig, apart from the aforementioned 'Let's Go Crazy' and a drastically slowed-down, bluesy version of 'I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man' which locates a sense of tragedy in that normally ultra-upbeat song. But there's plenty for connoisseurs, like 1999 album track 'Something In The Water Does Not Compute' (“You better not stop that", he smirks as we chant the refrain, "or I'll kill you!”), and a chunky version of mildly obscure fan favourite 'She's Always In My Hair', the B-side to 'Paisley Park', introduced with the possibly-redundant question "We got any 80s children in here?” For the real diehards, there's even the title track of little-remembered, now-deleted mid-90s album Chaos And Disorder.

'Guitar', the 2007 single, almost counts as an oldie now, but forthcoming album Plectrum Electrum is represented by tracks like 'Fixurlifeup' which, as well as namechecking London, appears to pay tribute to 3rdEyeGirl themselves: "A girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another crazy band of boys / Trying to be a star when you’re just another brick in the misogynistic wall of noise..." There's a cover of Billy Cobham's instrumental 'Stratus' (a fairly frequent choice), and there's also an ongoing game of spot-the-riff. Some reckon they've heard a bit of Pantera, others reckon Edgar Winter, others Led Zeppelin, but the one thing we all agree on is the incongruous snatch of the Sailor's Hornpipe.

At the end of the encore he hands his guitar to the front row, which makes for a wonderful visual image as they all hold it aloft like a holy relic, then he's gone. House lights come on, but nobody's fooled. Ten minutes later, Prince and 3EG are back and ripping into 'Bambi', the astonishing falsetto-metal number from his eponymous second album on which he tries to convince a lesbian lust-object that "it's better with a man", and I completely lose my shit. Bookending the gig with 'Let's Go Crazy', the crossover rock monster which put his face on the front of Kerrang!, and 'Bambi', his first ever rock song, makes perfect sense, given the sonic palette of the 3rdEyeGirl set-up.

Ninety minutes later, he's back and loosened up. “London! Aaah it's my new home now...” The second crowd are repaid for their patience with most of the same set and more, including covers of 'Crimson & Clover' and 'Play That Funky Music', an arm-waving, audience-participation 'Purple Rain', a sampler megamix of 'When Doves Cry', 'Sign 'O' The Times' and 'Hot Thing', instrumental snatches of 'Alphabet St', 'Pop Life' and (for the trainspotters) Vanity 6's 'Nasty Girl', an exuberant 'Housequake' and 'I Would Die 4 U', and a sublime, curfew-busting 'A Love Bizarre'.

"Was that a religious experience for you?", someone asks on the way out. Yes, and no. Prince has religion. I have Prince. And I reckon I win.