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Things Learned At: Prince In Leeds
JR Moores , May 27th, 2014 12:26

JR Moores grew up in the 1990s and didn't quite get what all the fuss was about when it came to Prince. Would a night in Leeds with The Purple One convince him otherwise?

Prince, hey? What's all the fuss about? After all his love symbols, multi-disc boxsets, lifetime achievement awards, and albums given away with the Mail On Sunday, Prince has finally managed to reignite a level of interest in his career not seen since the peak of his fame through the curiously old-fashioned trick of turning up onstage, in some places, to play some songs. Thanks to this innovative approach to self-promotion, the past few months have seen us bombarded by hagiographic reviews of his mighty concerts, often penned by those old (and thus fortunate) enough to remember Prince at his best. Well spare a thought for those of us who didn't come of age with 'Dirty Mind' playing on our Walkmans. Spare a thought for those who had 'Sir Psycho Sexy' by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and since then cannot achieve even the slightest twinge of an erection without hearing a shoddy rhyming couplet about LA and engaging in some slap-bass foreplay. (Come to think of it, as pioneeringly sensual as Prince once was, aren't tracks like 'Darling Nikki' just a little bit Kiedish?) Spare a thought for those who never quite understood Prince.

For those a little younger, conditioned by the guitar-orientated grunge and Britpop scenes, Prince was a naff relic of a bygone era. Prince may have held appeal had he been born a little earlier or later but his discography was too drenched in synth, too tainted by the sounds, aesthetics and excesses of the 1980s. Our heroes didn't own keyboards or wear purple blouses. If they were American they moped around in plaid and if they were British they wore a parka and hobbled up the pavement like a costive mandrill. This contrived earthiness magnified Prince's ludicrousness. Prince wrote stuff on his face. Prince changed his name to TAFKAP or 'Mr. Squiggle'. Prince did a tie-in album to a Batman movie that sounded nothing like Danny Elfman. However unfairly, we had him lumped in with his rival over-the-creative-hill absurd peddler of egocentric MOR heal-the-world pap Michael Jackson. Lenny Kravitz seemed cool by comparison. Sure, our prejudices receded over the years. Some of us bought Emancipation or The Hits/The B-Sides for under a fiver in the HMV sale because that was a bargain for three CDs and some of it was bound to be good. Some of us were subjected to a continuous loop of Tom Jones classics by a certain History teacher on a seemingly endless school-trip coach journey, worn down and indoctrinated into a newfound admiration for the furry Welsh sexbomb and from there discovered the original 'Kiss'. Some of us found Prince via Sinéad O'Connor's universally heartbreaking cover version. Some of us discovered the glory of Purple Rain.

Yet few of us fell head-over-heels.

So what can a Prince non-obsessive learn from seeing the purple-clad legend live for the very first time?

The Ladies Love Prince

On the way to Leeds, the train carriage is packed with excited women of all ages. Two are debating, at an impressive volume, whether Prince is actually gay. The first is convinced that he is. Her friend (Tracy) isn't having any of it. Many of these women are dressed in purple. Purple dresses. Purple tops. Purple shoes. Purple ribbons in their hair. And who can blame Prince obsessives? From the moment the big purple curtain is lifted to reveal the stage and Prince kicks things off with 'Let's Go Crazy', he is a strutting, slinking, hip-shaking, booty-shaking, sultry showman of the sexiest order. I'm not used to this. Most gigs, for me, take place in dank basements that smell of urinal cake, have posters advertising the local Hawkwind tribute act and are full of pot-bellied men watching other pot-bellied men playing music that's about as erotic as that thick layer of jowl that dangles from the bottom of Jeremy Clarkson's empty skull. After thrusting his way through a selection of his strongest tracks, Prince says, “Leeds, it's been a long time. It's been a real long time. But I've been waiting to give you this...” and launches into 'Kiss'. The ladies leap out of their seats and the significant male others who accompany some of them follow their partner's lead, a second or two later. Of course, the blokes love Prince too, but they're also made to feel utterly inadequate, incompetent, impotent and hideously overweight (no matter how slender) in the face of this strutting straw-thin sexpot. Some of them still try to compete, bless 'em. One man leans across to give his girlfriend a smack on the lips in perfect time with Prince squealing the word “KISS!” Good effort, mate, but there's only one man she's thinking of right now. When her lover nips off to the bar or the bogs, the same woman dances so damn hard she literally collapses into the aisle. She dusts herself off with a smile and resumes her solo air grinding.

Prince Loves His Guitar

They weren't kidding when they told me that Prince was heavier live. 'Let's Go Crazy' is interspersed by countless, incomprehensively nimble blasts of guitar wizardry. When not tickling his instrument, Prince's hands fist-pump the air, so the crowd follow suit. He places his palms to his ears, and the crowd scream with abandon. He gracefully twirls his arms around in front of his body, forming a sort of moving, writhing snake sculpture. His band are heavy too. During 'Sign O The Times', Hannah Ford sets a new record for sheer drum-pounding-osity. At times, especially during the exuberant cover of Wild Cherry's 'Play That Funky Music', Ida Nielson's bass threatens to vibrate into the surrounding counties. “Y'all can't handle this,” notes Prince at one point, “it's getting too funky in here!” Donna Grantis is a virtuoso foil to Prince's concurrent axe work, but when Prince needs to sing, dance and jiggle around hands-free, she takes the reins and rocks out like only somebody good enough to be in Prince's band truly can. “There's been a move towards the guitar in recent years,” declares Prince (perhaps meaning “decades”). “That's what this group is about, 3rdEyeGirl. This song is about how I love them, and you, but not like I love my guitar!” This thundering cock-rock rendition of 2007's 'Guitar' backed by the powerhousing 3rdEyeGirl sounds like Led Zeppelin have been hired by the US army to simultaneously deafen Mega Shark, Giant Octopus, Mothra, and that thing from Cloverfield.

We Don't Know Who Prince Is

Now. Lyrically, 'Guitar' is a wee bit 'My Lovely Horse' from Father Ted, only it's about a guitar rather than a horse. It tells us almost nothing about its author, other than he possesses a romantic affection for his guitar. What do we know about Prince? We learn little of him from tonight's performance. We know he enjoys guitars. We know he enjoys sex (or did, nowadays he might prefer religion). We know he's an astonishingly versatile rock/soul singer and multi-instrumentalist who's assembled a phenomenal group of female musicians (and one male keyboardist). But who lies behind it? Who is Prince? Musically, he's part-Jimi Hendrix, part-James Brown, part-George Clinton, part-Michael Jackson, part-Stevie Wonder, but that doesn't really get to the bottom of his art. As for the individual who makes this art, we've still no idea. Prince is sexy because... well, okay, because he can move like no other man, he's preposterously good looking and talented and clever and doesn't seem to have aged and he puts on a good show and writes incredible music... but it's also because we know hardly anything about him. We can project onto him whatever we like. He's never allowed his audience to grow familiar (thus contemptuous) with who he really is. Even Prince's biographers admit that he remains an enigma. He's so mysterious that it's breathtakingly shocking just to see a sketch of the inside of his fridge and learn of his mustard. He'll be sexy forever because none of us will ever see his fusty old knickers slung across the top of the radiator (metaphorically speaking, and to borrow something Nick Hornby once wrote) or even come within a trillion light years' distance of Prince the person. Sure, stadium shows are meant to be slicker than Don Draper's hair in a pomade pitch-meeting, but in some ways Prince's performance is just too good, too smooth, too flawless. He's so talented that people are always comparing him to an alien (a sexy alien at that, rather than Predator or Alf), because his talent appears to transcend the conceivable abilities of any mere human being. And 3rdEyeGirl, who are glamorous and talented enough to back this sextra-terrestrial, are so perfect that they may risk resembling a group of Austin Powers fembots. The problem with being beyond human is that you lose your all-important human fragility.

Thus, it comes as a relief when Prince hurls his guitar towards the side of the stage at the end of '1999' and it looks as though gravity's going to smash it into tiny pieces and a roadie leaps forward just a fraction of a second too late, fumbling his catch and inelegantly half-dropping Prince's fancy axe. Hooray! Look, there's a person! Like what we are. Slightly bodging his job. Like what we do. There's a glimpse of something more mortal when Prince plays 'How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore', alone, on his piano, and follows it with 'The Beautiful Ones' which climaxes with such a naked, raw, and canid howl that the audience's goosebumps threaten to explode into the air and shower back down on our heads like the appropriately-coloured confetti did during 'Purple Rain'.

Still, after all that time, after over two hit-filled hours and 30-odd songs that flew by faster than you can say “no photography permitted”, it's almost as if Prince pulled off some elaborate group-hallucination magic-mirror trick, and we never really saw behind the big purple curtain at all.

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