It’s a tough one, this piece of news. Prince was so vital, so unpredictable, with every show so different from the last, that it’s astounding to think it’s over, that the late show in Atlanta last Thursday is the last iteration of a Prince setlist we’ll ever encounter.
I was still wondering what would come next. Would his Piano And A Microphone Tour, in which dates were scattered across the globe and calendar seemingly at random, ever make it to LA? Would he be onto something else entirely by then? Reports from the shows in the last few months were almost universally rapturous. I’m not going to see it. DAMN.
I’m choosing to remember him tonight by recounting the numerous occasions where I got to see him live, each one a unique encounter. He’s been mostly good to his fans (most early adopters of NPGMusicClub.com would agree), though he has pissed us off occasionally too (hello, lotuslow3r.com subscribers.) But one thing he never did was pander to us. He was always capable of big surprises no matter the size of the venue, and sometimes he challenged his listeners to stay in the moment with him. And if you did, that was the point where the shows crossed the line into transcendence.
Hollywood Palladium, October 1997
My first live experience was not the best one. Almost every one of his hits was played as part of a medley, with only the handful of newest songs getting played in their entirety. It was really a bit of tease for two hours. However, during a cover of “Talking Loud And Saying Nothing,” he did a move where he kicked he mic stand over, spun around and kicked it back up that, even from 300 yards away, made my jaw drop open. Other than that, the most memorable aspect of the show was the energy of the audience, as diverse a crowd as I’ve seen in LA, every one of them getting down. This has proved to be a constant at every other show – he always has the most party-ready audience of ANYBODY.
Kodak Theater, May 2002
For this tour of theaters, Prince dedicated most of the first hour of the setlist to new material from his fusion-flavored Rainbow Children album. They would get to playing some favorites later in the night, but the version of “Family Name” that night took my head clean off, with some of the most searing lead guitar I have heard him, or anyone, do.
Staples Center, March 29, 2004
The second night of the Musicology tour was broadcast to fans in theaters across the country, and marked the opening of the last Prince mega-tour ever. The first encore was a quiet thriller, an acoustic mini-set by Prince and guitarist Mike Scott that closed with the heartbreaking ballad “Sometimes It Snows In April” (a song a lot of people are surely listening to tonight). The intensity of the ovation that followed caused Prince to shield his face for a moment, I do believe we made a proud man blush.
Staples Center, May 26, 2004
A return trip on the Musicology tour featured the same band and mostly the same set, but the standout tonight was the guitar feature “Shhh.” The tension was so thick in the moments before letting fly with the orgasmic solo, I could feel him literally controlling our breathing.
House of Blues, May 28, 2004
This was my only experience with one of his legendary after-show shows. We were let in at midnight, after the room had already been warmed up by another full house, and stewed in our own juice for at least two hours before the band took the stage. It was a loose, spontaneous set with a lot of instrumentals and a lot of break-taking by Prince himself. But at the sight of Wendy Melvoin stalking out to center stage, guitar in hand, produced a collective gasp of disbelief, as if we were seeing Godzilla come to life. She proceeded to play on the rest of the set, which included a killer “Girls And Boys.”
Nokia Theater April, 2009
This was one of three shows, all done in a single night at the LA Live complex, to promote the Lotusflow3r/ MPLSound/ Elixir triple-CD release. Playing with a stripped down band including LA locals Josh and Cora Dunham, fighting terrible PA problems, and with Conga Room owner Sheila E visibly hollering at him to get off stage and up to her place, he closed out the first set of the day with the Time’s “Jungle Love” and “The Bird”, which inexplicably managed to up the crowd’s energy level.
LA Forum, April 14, 2011
For the opening of his ambitious 21 Nights In LA stand, Prince gave the Forum crowd everything he had. A 3 1/2 hour show that left people banging on the seats after their throats were too ravaged to audibly yell for more. The “perfect moments” at this show were many, from the superb “Uptown” that came early in the set, to the ripping cover of Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” and resurrection of shredding eighties b-side “She’s Always In My Hair” that were part of the final encore. Even the commonly heard songs like “Pop Life” and “DMSR” had more life than usual, as the man himself was dancing and git-fiddling up a storm. But the version he did that night of “The Beautiful Ones”, with an interpretive dance by one of his accompanying Twinz, left a lot of human puddles coagulating on the Forum’s concrete floor.
LA Forum, May 7, 2011
With a large number of the tickets priced at $25, it was easy to justify a return to the Forum a couple of weeks later. This time we saw a more streamlined two-hours-and-change set, most of us which had featured in the opening night marathon. Tonight, he seemed to be in cover band mode, pulling out fist-pumpers like “Hollywood Swingin'”. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”. and “Play That Funky Music” in mid-set. and allowing his three backup singers to take the spotlight for Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” and a tender “Make You Feel My Love.” And the best of these was the marriage of the Time’s “Cool” with Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”, which had those of us in the “Dance Party” section (basically, the floor space around the butt end of his glyph-shaped stage) putting the space to good use.
Sayers Club, October 26, 2012
This entire night was, frankly, a holy grail moment, inside a room that might hold 150 people, with Prince and an impromptu version of the NPG on the stage, and a 15-piece horn section spilling out onto the club floor, blowing right in our faces. While much of the set list was familiar from his recent stops, the versions were long and exploratory, featuring some exceptionally fine chicken-scratching from Prince and Mike Scott. And really the only moment in my concert-going life that compares with the Wendy Melvoin sighting I talked about earlier, was the one tonight. I could tell there was a guy on stage who I didn’t recognize playing incredible rhythm guitar and singing lead on “Dance Electric”, but I didn’t put two and two together until Prince said it: “Mr. Andre Cymone.”
The Grove, May 7, 2013
Touring with the trio 3rdEyeGirl seemed to give Prince a jones for old-fashioned guitar heroics, and this was a loud set that featured few keyboards and copious distortion. But maybe because of the relentless pace, the two songs that stood out for me this night were the ballads – rarely performed oldie “When We’re Dancing Close And Slow” and the then-unreleased “The Breakdown”, which would turn out to be a highlight of 2014’s Art Official Age.
The Palladium, March 8, 2014
Announced the morning of the show, with tickets only sold at the box office, this show astonishingly failed to sell out, or come close. Those of us who made it in were treated to a four-hour extravaganza (approximately tied for the longest he’s ever known to have done) featuring 3rdEyeGirl, augmented by horns, keyboards and backup singers. Many obscure songs were trotted out, and played magnificently. What really got to me this night was Doug E Fresh frantically rapping over the sampled intro to “Hot Thing”, in what seemed like an off-the-cuff collaboration that really worked, and a trippy full-band version of “Something In The Water (Does Not Compute),” a 1999 highlight given a worthy new arrangement.
He never did the same show twice, in fact there might not be a single song that was played at every single one of those gigs. But there is one common moment that pretty much all of these sets had in common, at least one moment where I looked around and saw black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody just a freakin’, and felt a little better about life for a minute. Everybody at a Prince show looked sexy. Everybody danced, together. No matter what he had in mind to play, that ALWAYS happened. It was the only part of his show that was ever predictable.