Live Review: Prince at City National Grove of Anaheim

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Photo of Prince and 3rdeyegirl in Vancouver at the start of the tour by Kevin Mazur, used by permission.

Prince remains one of our most unpredictable superstars, and never more so than when playing in a small venue. Even in arenas, he might pull out something unexpected in addition to a parade of hits, but in a club setting, all bets are off. I’ve seen after-parties composed almost completely of cover tunes and spontaneous improvs; I’ve seen him pull together a 12-piece horn section that spilled out onto the club floor like a New Orleans second-line band. It might be jazz-fusion flavored, it might be a night of rarely performed tender ballads, he might invite everyone in his rolodex to step up for a song or two, and it’s not out of the question that someone like Wendy Melvoin or Andre Cymone might take the call. He might play songs only his most hyper-vigilant internet followers know about. He might play gnarly guitar solos all night or not pick up the guitar at all.

These small shows tend to be experimental and risky, and sometimes experiments fail. The song choices and arrangements run toward the self-indulgent rather than the crowd-pleasing. That can be tough for those fans who thought they were going to get to hear stuff like “1999” and “When Doves Cry” all night in an intimate setting, but for those excited to hear something out of the ordinary and see the man at his most in-the-moment, the smaller gigs are where it’s at.

When tickets were put on sale for four shows at the 1700-capacity Grove, two nights with an early and late show and a hefty ticket price of $200 per set, most of his audience had never heard of a “3rd Eye Girl” or had any idea that he’d released any new music lately, unless they’d caught him dong “Rock And Roll Love Affair” on Jimmy Kimmel’s show last fall with a mostly different band. But fans who keep a close eye on reports from other towns had learned about Prince’s new keyboardist-free all-girl group and his fondness for using them as a vehicle for fearsome guitar explorations back in January, when they debuted at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. With almost no media fanfare, new songs have been popping up on throughout the year, with a forthcoming album titled Plectrum Electrum. So while many of the ticket buyers were clueless about what lay in store, those who’d done their most basic research were primed for a thick slice of guitar-powered metal-funk, which is exactly what Prince delivered.

Following multiple warnings from drummer Hannah Ford that anyone caught wielding a camera would be swiftly and lovingly booted from the premises (which multiple people have since told me did indeed happen), the band came out of the gate with a sludged-out “Let’s Go Crazy,” roaring into fan favorite “Endorphinmachine.” Prince was sporting a full Hendrix afro and skin-tight body suit, and the scorching tone coming out of his amp confirmed that the reference was not random. New guitarist Donna Grantis sparred with him over the solos, occasionally rattling off dueling lines worthy of the Allman Brothers. For fans of his peculiar guitar-hero stylings, it was total bliss.

The subtle nuances of Ford’s playing were sadly muffled in what was otherwise a very good sound mix; though she was playing well, and her kick and snare powered the band, it sometimes sounded as if the toms and cymbals were covered in cardboard. Bassist Ida Nielsen is the sole veteran of the NPG lineup that performed twenty-one dates in LA in April-May of 2011, Prince’s last major shows in town, and she fits right into the groove of this new unit. They’re all fantastic players, and they play with a single-minded focus that has been sorely missing from a lot of his work.

And that focus is visible in the man himself too. He seems to have taken on a Camille-like persona for this 3rdeyegirl thing, that of mind-expanding rock and roller. Visually, musically, in terms of the lesser-known old songs he’s chosen to play (“Bambi”, “She’s Always In My Hair”, “I Like It There,” “Guitar”, “When We’re Dancing Slow And Close”, even 2010’s internet-only “Cause And Effect”), the covers (“Crimson And Clover” with a little bit of “Wild Thing” in there and the Cars’ “Let’s Go”) and the new songs he’s put together for this lineup (“Screwdriver”, “The Breakdown”, “Fixurlifeup”, “2 Young 2 Dare”), this was a Prince show at its most fully realized.

For opening night’s early show, the performances were kept compact and relatively brief, and though the two cuts that stretched out, “She’s Always In My Hair” and “When We’re Dancing Slow And Close,” were two immediate highlights, it felt good that the rest of the set was tight and to-the-point. Packed together so tightly ourselves (though surprisingly comfortably so, even close to the front), we needed a show that kept the short, sharp shocks coming.

This band is loud but not without subtlety. It’s always great fun to watch Prince as he conducts his players through changes flawlessly, directing the ebb and flow with everything from body movements to shouted commands. The new songs are the most tightly wound, some  performed in sync to their corresponding music videos, and every one feels at home here. “The Breakdown” in particular, is a monster onstage, one of the strongest segments in a very strong set. And his playing is not just undimmed, it’s improved – he’s playing floor-stompers like “Bambi” better than I’ve heard him do before. By removing the keyboard parts from all but two of the songs, on which he played piano himself, it was all guitars all the time. Nielsen’s rubbery basslines and Ford’s spotless kick drumming kept it from plodding, even when the tempos dropped.

Not everyone liked the woosh-woosh psychedelic visuals that sometimes obscured the musicians’ faces – one critic in another town described the overall look as an “expensive peepshow” – but I liked it. It reminded me of the Butthole Surfers circa 1987, where you could become so fixated on the images being projected onscreen, the fact that you were watching human performers making the soundtrack became a secondary concern. It was only overwhelming for a short time, and as a special effect I thought it worked well.

Those that came for the hits have left earlier shows on this tour disappointed, with only two or three bonafide big singles in the set, but we got at least a few more: distorted re-arrangements of “Let’s Go Crazy”, “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”, “U Got The Look” and “Little Red Corvette”, along with a version of “Purple Rain” played by Prince at the piano, so far to stage right I couldn’t see him, that oddly ignored the wailing guitar solo that would have been so in character for this kind of show. But having just rammed heavy guitar in our face for ninety minutes, it was the most genius thing to turn it over to the audience for woo-hoo-hoo-hoos immediately. That was the kind of moment a lot of people had been waiting for, a moment of feelgood come-together familiarity in a night largely made up of new and obscure tunes, and it felt right to get straight to it.

The Grove was a nice location for this show, about as big as you can get and still feel intimate, and they provided a food truck for fans who’d lined up early or needed a bite between shows. One correspondent from reported that Wednesday’s late show was the best of the run, including a stage-diving Prince, a thrown guitar, and a screamingly intense version of “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore”. Damn. It can be frustrating, knowing that every show has the potential to be THAT one without knowing which one to buy tickets for in advance. That’s the price of unpredictability.

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