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Prince is alive and well, and living in Las Vegas

Jon Bream
McClatchy Newspapers

AS VEGAS - Dearly beloved, we are gathered here for a thing called club life.

Unlike most big-name musicians, Prince didn't pay his dues in smoky bars with lousy sound systems and overpriced beers. Now the Minnesota icon has signed on for a regular weekend gig in a Vegas club that holds only 900 people.

This is a really big show in a city where Elton John, Celine Dion and Toni Braxton also have "house" gigs. Prince's familiar golden glyph stretches for 13 stories on the facade of the 50-story Rio All-Suites and Casino. His face is plastered on billboards and mini-buses all over town. His Friday and Saturday shows at the 3121 club are the hottest ticket in Vegas - $125 for general admission, $350 for a reserved VIP ticket, including dinner and champagne - this side of Cirque du Soleil's Beatles-fueled "Love."

A line forms outside the club about 6 p.m., even though Prince doesn't hit the stage until after midnight. There's Keiko from Tokyo, who has seen 11 shows at 3121 since Prince started there in November. There are Francesco and Raymond from Amsterdam, who want to be sure they're right up front. There are three California grade-school teachers who bought their tickets four weeks ago, the earliest you can buy in advance.

Tonight is Prince's first night back at 3121 since his Super Bowl splash in the rain. DJ Rashida sets the mood with a little Guns `N Roses, Digital Underground and a lot of Prince. Screens show filmed endorsements from Salma Hayek, Randy Jackson of "American Idol," Pharrell Williams and several former Prince sidemen. Suddenly, the Purple One begins playing guitar before the curtain is raised - "Joy in Repetition," a slow, moody opener.

___

3121 takes its name from Prince's latest CD, which took its title from the address of a house he rented in Los Angeles. There are three tiers of plush VIP booths and tables, a sizable dance floor and a series of curved video screens on the walls.

The stage set is fairly simple, with a spiral staircase (the horn section is perched upstairs), some glow-in-the-dark pipes and a giant heart that looks like a leftover from 1987's "Sign o' the Times" tour.

This isn't Prince's best band. He has the Twinz, two identical dancing sisters from Australia, for Ikettes-like eye candy and energy. He has the husband-and-wife team of Josh and Cora Dunham as a steady if unspectacular rhythm section. But he also has a sterling three-man horn section, his best keyboardist ever (Renato Neto) and his best featured vocalist (the underutilized Shelby Johnson, who joined New Year's weekend).

"Las Vegas, talk to me," Prince urges. "How ya doing? Ready for the sexy weekend?"

Tonight, Las Vegas gets sexy old hits ("Kiss," "Cream"), reworked favorites ("Girls & Boys," "Nothing Compares 2 U"), lots from "3121" (the slowly seductive blues-jazz "Satisfied," the oddly electronic "Black Sweat") and a few surprises (a Dixie instrumental romp of "Down by the Riverside," a funktastic version of the Beatles' "Come Together").

Prince is loose and friendly. He struts into the crowd to sing, escorted by two bodyguards. He shakes hands with fans. He smiles often and talks a lot.

"I'm going to rock this joint just like I did at the Super Bowl," he proudly proclaims.

But Prince knows how it's played in Vegas - even down to his diamond pinkie ring. His set is about 90 minutes, short for him but standard for Vegas. He gives a shout-out in the Sinatra tradition: "I want to say a special thanks to Mr. Elton John for coming to see us," he says to surprised and rabid applause. "I saw your show last night and you tore that piano up. Go check out his show; it's a lot to see."

Later, Sir Elton returns the favor, taking the stage for an encore of the Beatles' "Long and Winding Road." Backed by Prince's band minus Prince, he stands front and center, singing with dramatic, Neil Diamond-like hand gestures.

"You never know what's going to happen in Las Vegas, baby," Elton says to a rapturous response.

What happens next is Johnson taking the stage for a furiously funky treatment of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," with a slammin' Prince guitar solo and Sir Elton on backup vocals.

The lucky clubgoers get the Red Piano man, but no "Purple Rain" songs. Didn't they get enough of those at the Super Bowl? Well, this night isn't over.

___

"We have more to get out of our system," says Prince, promising to play til 5 a.m. "You're welcome to join us."

There is no party like a Prince after-party, especially in Vegas. While the club performance feels like a carefully rehearsed show with little organic musicmaking, the late-late set at 3121 Jazz Cuisine - an adjacent restaurant featuring a pricey but delicious fusion menu created by Prince's personal chef - is all about spontaneity and musicality.

There is no stage or stage lights, just equipment set up in a dimly lit side room with 80 seats. To snare a chair, you have to buy the $350 VIP concert ticket and pony up an extra $50. There is room for another 100 or so people in the restaurant's main room, where you can't see the musicmakers, but you can hear them for merely the price of two drinks.

At 3:10 a.m., the darkly clad Prince picks up his guitar. The musical menu is unpredictable - everything from instrumental jazz jams to Prince tunes to covers of the Commodores, Tower of Power and Mother's Finest. But the music is predictably wonderful. Vocal powerhouse Johnson is at her finest in this setting. Sheila E sits in for a bit. And Prince's sidemen are turned loose and earn newfound respect.

For years, Prince used to do shows like this at his Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen. There was no advertising, just word of mouth. There was usually no ticket charge - but also no guarantee that Prince would play. Sometimes it would be just his band or an artist he was producing. In Vegas, there is no such gamble.

"This is so worth it," gushes Sally Olsen, 41, a red-eyed teacher from Merced, Calif. who shelled out for the VIP package.

It's 5:10 a.m. as Prince walks out the back door, steps into his blue Bentley with Cali plates and drives to his Vegas pad ... some 300 yards away. He lives in a gated compound behind the Rio in one of eight 5,000-square-foot condos reserved for high rollers and bold-face names. Guess who's one of his neighbors?

Elton John.

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