Prince: Musicology Tour Kickoff

I dropped into Prince’s web site yesterday
(thanks Bill) to see how to get his new album. It seemed to be only
available for (paid) download, only available in Windows Media format,
and not actually available at all since the link was dead. But I kept
poking around his abominable flash interface, and saw that he was
kicking off the tour in LA Monday night, with the show simulcast in
movie theaters across the country. Unfortunately the NYC shows (at the
Union Square theater) were all sold out, but I was working in NJ and
there were tickets available for the show at the Regal on Route 1 in
North Brunswick. So for $20 I got to see a preview of the tour and a
free (albeit cheesily packaged in a thin cardboard sleeve) copy of the

It’s a greatest hits tour (see set list below); while he opened with
what I assume is the title track from the new album, and played a few
others I didn’t recognize (either unreleased, from the new album, or
from some of his thoroughly obscure 90s albums that I don’t listen to
much) he mostly did a career overview ranging from “I Feel For You”
(Yes, trivia fans, that songs pred8s Prince’s spelling quirks; he
kicked it off, asked if anyone recognized it, and groaned, “Ah, y’all
don’t know my music.”) to “7” — in other words, nothing newer than
1992 and surprisingly, nothing from Diamonds and Pearls.

This is the third show in the last few years I’ve seen where a former
smash hitmaker trots out a new album in front of his loyal fans. Paul
McCartney, sadly, played Beatles songs like a particularly gifted cast
member of Beatlemania, copying note-for-note solos that he hadn’t even
played originally. David Bowie sold out Roseland for a fun show,
kidding around with the band, telling jokes, and performing two albums
(a nicely updated “Low” and his new “Heathen”) straight through from
start to finish and then offered a quick encore of three big
hits. McCartney was playing himself on TV; Bowie was successful and
comfortable and happy enough not to give a damn what you thought.

Prince had something to prove — that nobody can put together a live
show like he can, various pretenders notwithstanding — and he worked
his ASS off to do it. He put on an incredibly tight, choreographed
show, done the old-fashioned way. James Brown would have been proud; I
don’t know if Prince fines people who drop a beat but if so, nobody
owed any money at the end of the night.

This band has clearly been playing eight hours a day for months. About
midway through the first set, after a minor mistake from one of the
band, he announced “Los Angeles, we do not believe in
lip-synching. This is real music by real musicians.” He gave every
band member a lot of space for solos, did set pieces with many of them
(particularly sax player Candy Dulfer, ex-Van Morrison, who also did
some singing), and also played a lot of guitar himself, mostly the
same blonde Telecaster (or a copy thereof) he’s been using since at
least the video for 1999. So he did a lot of showboat soloing, of
course, but several times he stopped the band and laid down some great
funk grooves, and he often answered his own vocals with the guitar. On
A Question Of U, in fact, he did an extended solo with some
(thankfully) nicely restrained use of the wah pedal, kind of
lip-synching along with a lot of sustained, bent notes from the
guitar. (Heavy use of whammy bar as well.)

Renato Neto on keyboards, with several long spots to himself, played
very jazzy piano, but at other times rocked out on a couple of vintage
80s analog synthesizers. Rhonda Smith is a monster on bass — she can
play anything from hard rock to old-school funk to what almost sounds
like an acoustic bass — and the horn section (two saxes plus a great
trombone player) was hot and wirelessly mobile (at one point, Prince
was holding his mic back over his shoulder, leading the trombone
player around the stage and “pulling” notes out of his horn. The
closeup camera work really shows you how hard they’re working: playing
hard, dancing, doing rehearsed moves with very tight cues, and all the
women and Prince in three-inch heels to boot (forgive me).

The best surprise, though, was the second set, which started off
entirely acoustic. He sat by himself on a swivel chair (the stage is
in the round) and played “Forever In My Life” while turning himself
(ie, not on a turntable). He played a couple of blues, including this
12-bar gem:

Ain’t nothin after midnight ever been too good for me
Ain’t nothin after midnight ever been too good for me
Cause when I wake up in the morning I don’t know who you be

Somethin’s funky baby, is that your breath or mine?
Somethin’s really funky baby, is that your breath or mine?
I had the regular chips bby, you had that other kind

I’m really gonna need your name if I’m gonna make you mine
Yes I’ll need your name baby if I’m gonna make you mine
My name is 12:01 but you can call me anytime

Prince’s licks and phrasing have always been very bluesy but hearing
him play (almost) solo acoustic, you really see how much of what he
does is based on standard blues licks, but mutated through his own
melodic quirkiness and love of jazz. He was backed by a second
guitarist, Michael Scott, sitting back in the dark, which seemed a
little like cheating at first. But Scott, who’d been playing a
gorgeous jazz archtop during the main set, just played tasteful rhythm
on the first song while Prince played fills and leads. On the second
blues, Prince gave him an extended solo, and just sat there in the
spotlight playing rhythm and enjoying Scott’s playing.

He wrapped up the acoustic set with Little Red Corvette (yes,
acoustic, even replicating the keyboard riff in the chorus with big
full open chords) and 7, which re-introduced the band for a long
rideout on (obviously) “Purple Rain.”

Set List:

  • Musicology (just him and the drummer)
  • Let’s Go Crazy
  • When Doves Cry (he tossed the “Kiss” riff in on guitar after the 2nd line)
  • I Would Die 4 U
  • Baby I’m a Star
  • Shhh
  • DMSR
  • I Feel For You
  • Instrumental set break, with a long sax solo culminating on a
    two-minute circular-breathing sustained note. Not sure who the
    player was, but it wasn’t Maceo Parker (more’s the pity) —

  • Beautiful Ones
  • (segues to) Nothing Compares 2 U (never noticed, but similar chord changes)
  • Slow song I didn’t recognize
  • Sign O The Times (with the gun mic)
  • A Question Of U
  • Let’s Work
  • U Got the Look
  • During this song he invites audience members up to dance. It’s a
    wide cross-section of people — quite a few PYTs but also dumpy
    guys in shorts who couldn’t dance, and middle-aged women. He
    tapped one girl with purple hair on the shoulder, and danced with
    her for a moment, then a few minutes later leaned back on an
    overweight woman in an unfortunately tight denim dress, soloing
    on guitar as she just laughed and laughed. Someone else slipped
    and fell; and right on the one he stops the band, says “Oops! Too
    many trips to the bar!” and picks the song right up again (have I
    mentioned how tight this band is?). The dancers stay onstage till
    the end of the main set.

  • Another song I didn’t recognize
  • Soul Man (with a guest vocalist, didn’t catch his name)
  • Kiss (“Dynasty” reference sung by audience, but corrected to “Sex In the City” by Prince, with a laugh)
  • Take Me With You
  • Acoustic set

  • Forever In My Life
  • Two blues songs I don’t recognize including the one quoted above
  • Little Red Corvette
  • Sometimes It Snows In April
  • 7 (bringing back band)
  • Predictable Finale

  • Purple Rain, with the purple symbol guitar

So, it certainly could have been more adventurous (I would have loved
to see the One Night Alone tour that came out in the box set last
year) but it was a thrilling show on screen, so I’m looking forward to
seeing it in person. It would be nice if he would start writing
seriously again, but I think he made his point that no matter how many
samples and tape loops support them, most of the current crew of pop
superstars just couldn’t touch a show like this. He even dissed his
contemporaries who’ve not aged so well; at one point, after he’d been
singing falsetto, he dropped his voice, saying “Is my voice getting
higher? I ain’t NEVER had my nose done.”

He said this would be his last time playing these hits (which I think
he’s said before) and that this was his first arena tour in ten years
(not true; Jam Of the Year was 96-97). But like Bowie, Prince knows
it’s not about being genuine, it’s about making sure there’s plenty of
art in the artifice.

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