In town last week for an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live to plug his latest single, Prince showed up twice at the 200-capacity, invite-only Sayers Club, pleasuring the priviliged with hyper-intimate sets showcasing his new protégé Andy Allo, as well as his new mega-piece horn section – I thought I counted twelve players, someone else counted eleven, and I read fourteen on the internet. Since the gig took place in a club where cameras and cell phones are confiscated at the door, we may never know the truth. But undeniably, Prince is back on a roll where live performance is concerned, and the opportunity to experience it on Thursday was a surreal and delicious experience.
Prince is the rare megastar who still plays small venues on a regular basis. LA fans have had the chance to see him at Highlands Club, the Roxy, the Conga Room, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Palace/ Avalon, the Troubadour, Tower Records Sunset and many times at the House Of Blues in just the last decade. But the appearance at Sayers took the concept of intimacy to a new level – even at the back of the room, up against the bar, I wasn’t more than forty feet from the guy.
And it was a very good night indeed to be just yards away from the action. Having seen him play a dozen times in the last fifteen years, I have no problem proclaiming the Thursday night show to be among the best I’ve ever seen him give.
For an old-school dive bar devotee like myself, the bottle service club is a strange beast to navigate. I’d read a little about this club, an industry haunt with no sign over the door, and it was said there were doormen like you used to hear about at Studio 54. I wasn’t sure I owned any clothes that would get me into a place with a dress code but I put on my least wrinkled white shirt and jacket and headed out hoping for the best. In my haste I grabbed a grey pinstripe jacket instead of the black one I wanted, and as I approached the club, one of the kids bumming cigarettes on Hollywood Boulevard asked me if I was a lawyer. Once inside, people in very expensive looking t-shirts and jeans looked at me more warily than the cigarette bums.
A $500 bottle in order to receive the privilege of a seat was out of the question, so I stood at the bar and tried not to be too jealous of the four rows of people in front of me. As an intimacy experience with a famous performer, it was hard to beat.
As a musical experience, it was possibly only topped by the opening set from the 21 Nights in LA stint last year at the Forum, a three-hour-plus blowout of about forty songs, a mix of hits, covers and rarely-played fan favorites, each given an inspired, hair-raising performance. The Sayers show was more relaxed, an opportunity to stretch out on some of his favorite grooves, and show off his musicians, including drummer John Blackwell, bassist Ida Neilsen, and keyboardist Morris Hayes.
While many of the song choices were familiar from the Forum sets of last year, they were transformed, sometimes radically, into extended takes with multiple solos and spontaneous breakdowns. “Musicology” is usually played lean and tight with minimal guitar if any, but here, he and guitarist Mike Scott took it on a funky chicken-scratch expedition, trading little crystalline flurries of notes back and forth in one of the most thrilling guitar duets I’ve ever seen. Other tracks were handed over to the horn section as Prince walked the stage, asking “who wants some?” and holding out his mic to the most enthusiastic responder.
This horn section is really quite impressive, and I hope he hangs onto it for a little while. It’s quite a sonic experience, the sound of a large horn section playing right next to you, especially one as flawless as this. All night, the sound quality was pitch-perfect, absolutely ideal in a way that’s impossible to achieve inside a barn like the Forum.
I’m not sure anyone if recognized the guy that strutted onstage at the end of the encore, took over the guitar and mic and busted into “The Dance Electric,” but when Prince called out the name of Andre Cymone, an audible gasp went up from the crowd. Cymone – not just the bassist in Prince’s band until 1981 but the leader of Grand Central, the mid-seventies group that brought Prince and Morris Day together – hasn’t been much heard from in recent years, unless you happened to notice his new track “America” show up on BandCamp just last month. The chance to see him on stage with Prince was one of those things that seemed so unlikely I never figured I’d get to see it, and then, what do you know, it’s happening right in front of me and so musically good, it’s blowing me away before I can figure out what’s going on.
It was a memorable moment of many. The cover of “Everyday People” that opened the encore was no radical reinvention, but was so spirited and heartfelt, even if it wasn’t a moment for adventurousness, it was a moment for feeling good, which was enough. Andy Allo’s opening “People Pleaser” with the horn section dancing behind her was instantly memorable, and marked her as a talent to watch out for. “Shhhhh” was its usual feature piece for Prince’s guitar, extra moody and dynamic, tense sheets of rhythmic chords giving in to sustained wailing. “DMSR” with a live horn section pounding that intro line was instantly off the hook, another number that Prince doesn’t always play guitar on, turned into a Hendrixian romp. “U Got The Look” was tough, nasty and everything we could have asked for.
But of all the moments, “Pop Life” was just the most perfect of the night. I looked around and spotted among the dancing ecstatic faces a small number of bored privileged people, pouring more drinks out of their $500 bottles, chatting amongst themselves in the absence of their cell phones, and wondered what I was doing there. Somebody else’s million dollar check got placed in my box, for once, no bottle service necessary. It was, as they say, priceless.