As my ticket was scanned, my secret shame wasn’t that I lacked intimate familiarity with Prince’s catalog, or even that I expected to be perhaps the only white suburban dad in my section of the building. It was that I’d learned about this Musicology tour from a guest spot on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. There’s a certain amount of “I saw him when…” street cred that goes with being a concert attendee, and I was packing a big fat zero.
18 Jul 2004: Continental Airlines Arena East Rutherford, New Jersey
Virtually everyone of my generation who’s ever listened to the radio is familiar with Prince, the Revolution, Purple Rain, that Batman thing, the New Power Generation, the buttless yellow jumpsuit on the VMAs, and Prince’s subsequent conversion into Symbol Guy. Since then, though, most of us haven’t quite been sure what he’s been up to. We might dimly recall his feud with Warner Brothers, which saw him make public appearances with the word “slave” written on his cheek, and we were relieved a few years ago when we heard that we could call stop calling him “The Artist”.
Music? I knew he’d put out some albums and had been releasing stuff via the Internet, but I hadn’t heard much since Diamonds and Pearls.
Fortunately for me, this tour was conceived with the casual fan in mind. Prince told Ellen that he would be playing “all his hits,” which was enough to convince me to buy some tickets. That’s obviously the idea. Indeed, Prince doesn’t even assume that you’ve bought his current album; a free copy of Musicology was given to everyone at the door.
As the lights dimmed, the four screens arrayed around the central stage showed a clip of Alicia Keys introducing Prince at the induction ceremonies for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past spring. As her comments progressed, the video was interspersed with a rapid montage of still shots from various stages of Prince’s career, from For You‘s giant `fro onward.
The band took their places and jumped into “Musicology”. Thick white smoke billowed forth from center stage, and Prince strutted out of its midst in a white costume with a long-tailed red coat. He visited each of the four ends of the cross-shaped stage, as if evaluating the audience. He found us wanting. “Jersey!” he called out, mid-song. “I am here! Where are YOU?” The crowd responded with a cheer that was merely ordinary. It wasn’t yet clear to us, but we were another of the many instruments that Prince expertly plays. “It’s time to get this party started,” he said, and “Musicology” was cut short. A pipe organ note sounded. “Dearly beloved,” began Prince, and the arena exploded.
After all, that’s what most of the 19,000 ticketholders were there for. Give us Purple Rain. Give us “1999” and “Raspberry Beret” and “Kiss”. It’s got to be frustrating for aging megastars like Prince, who are obliged to lug their whole legacy with them on tour (see also: Madonna). Hardcore fans notwithstanding, they need the goodwill generated by the hit parade in order to get the newer stuff over on the crowd. Even then, half the audience is just waiting for the song to be over so that they can hear something familiar and relive a memory from the summer of 19—. This audience, especially, was jonesing for nostalgia; my fears of being the only white suburban dad were unfounded. Members of the 16-24 set were a (large) minority; thirty and up was the norm, and we were the ones who made the second-tier floor shake in defiance of de-elevator’s attempts to bring us down.
Prince knew the score. Keeping his more obscure work to a minimum, he directed a two and a half hour omnibus jam session that included excerpts from at least 25 different songs. “Let’s Go Crazy”, “When Doves Cry” and “I Would Die 4 U” came and went early on, while “Kiss”, “U Got The Look”, “Cream” and “7” made later appearances (“Batdance”, sadly, was nowhere to be heard). Prince also took the time to reclaim “I Feel 4 U” and “Nothing Compares 2 U”, which he originally wrote for other artists.
Aside from the traditional stage exit before the encores, the night’s performance was almost completely uninterrupted. It seemed that at least one musician was playing at all times, even during costume changes. Saxophonist Maceo Parker made use of one of these to pay tribute to the recently departed Ray Charles with a moving rendition of “Georgia on My Mind”.
A relative handful of songs were played in something approaching their entirety, and one of these was a cover—Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, which Prince graced with his own treatment of the song’s psychedelic guitar interlude. The highlight of the show was “Little Red Corvette”, delivered acoustically about halfway through the evening. Sitting alone on a barstool at center stage, Prince sang the first verse and then invited us to take over for the chorus. Our initial response didn’t impress him. “Do y’all see anyone else up here?” he asked incredulously. “It’s just me. You MTV people might not be used to this, but there ain’t no lipsyncing on this stage.”
Thus encouraged, the crowd found its singing voice for the second verse.
...But it was Saturday night, I guess that makes it all right
And U say—‘Baby, have U got enough gas?’
“I bet I do,” replied Prince. Pandemonium.
By the time of the night’s final song, “Purple Rain”, the show had turned into a full on, feel good singalong and I was happily airing out my falsetto in comfortable anonymity. It was pushing midnight, we all had jobs in the morning, and it had been twenty years since we’d watched Prince win Apollonia back from Morris Day, but it was all good.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The Musicology Tour is being promoted as Prince “per4ming his hits 4 the last time!” David Bowie said this once, but within a couple of albums he was back up there, belting out “Suffragette City”. It’s a safe bet that we haven’t heard “Purple Rain” for the last time, either. That’s a good thing, because Prince is part of a dying breed: the multigenerational pop icon. With no successor in sight, we should be glad that he’s still got enough gas.