Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Christmas Present. Ever.

When you have kids, Christmas shifts. It's their holiday. You're in attendance, and get to have fun with the decorating and the music and the get-togethers, but Christmas morning belongs to them--even if, like my boys, they're too young to really understand what's going on. It's so much about them that the idea of exchanging gifts among adults starts to seem silly.

So everybody was under a tacit agreement to keep things low-key this year, which is why is was a huge surprise when La Chiquita sprung out a couple of tickets--good ones, no less--to Prince's Welcome 2 America concert as her Christmas present to me. I like a lot of different kinds of music, but Prince is the only performer where I have every one of his albums. For a while in the late 1990s, I made sure to catch him whenever he performed within an hour's drive of where I lived (even though I don't drive), still, I hadn't seen his live show in more than a decade--a combination of fan-alienating moves on his part and life getting in the way on my side had slackened my enthusiasm. Although I kept buying the Man's albums, only a few of them captured my imagination for more than a couple of spins (mainly, Musicology and 3121).

Regardless, I was overjoyed with the gift, and full of anticipation for the concert. We arrived a little late, having stopped by my brother's house to visit with my sister-in-law's family and with the newest addition to our clan. When we got there, the first opening number was already in progress. Sadly, neither of us had eaten, so securing food was a priority on arrival. I thought briefly that we were missing Maceo Parker, but it turned out the first opener was Mint Condition--a nice enough band, but not quite worth passing out at a concert over.

We took our seats in time for Janelle Monae's set. The introduction was strange because her albums apparently have a high-concept mythology to them--somehow masks, zombies, and androids are involved--which would've required a pamphlet or something for the uninitiated to understand, but her stage skills were old school in a good way: big voice, sharp dance moves, good presence. There's a lot of Prince in that young lady (perhaps the first time that phrase has been uttered without a truckload of innuendo being rightfully attached). Still, the audience's reaction was tepid--much of the crowd was getting $10 beers and/or watching the Islanders/Penguins game on the MSG TV monitors. It's a thankless job, opening for Prince.

After a looong break, during which the MSG monitors played clips from a late '60s/early '70s stadium concert (looked like the LA Coliseum), the Purple One finally took the stage. The stage was in the shape of the name symbol Prince used during his Artist Formerly Known As Prince period, with a purple baby grand piano set up on "mouthpiece" side of the horn that transects the symbol. Here's a really crappy iPhone photo, for instructional purposes:

Prince started on the piano, opening with the intro to The Beautiful Ones before leaving his seat to sing the ballad on top of the piano, and then leaving the piano to roam all over the stage. The Beautiful Ones is a really unusual song to lead off with--neither a chart-topper nor an uptempo number, but the song definitely showed that the Man's pipes are as powerful as ever. From there, it was on to the hits: Let's Go Crazy wrapped around a full version of Delirious, followed by certified crowd-pleasers 1999 and Little Red Corvette, and then a semi-medley of Uptown, Cream, and Raspberry Beret.

Every musician reacts differently to performing live. Most try to garner the crowd's favor, from seduction to outright sucking up. Prince is one of the guys who reverses the process--the audience has to earn his favor. Sure, he'll make sure you're happy--then again, in his mind, your satisfaction was never in doubt. The question is, will you, the audience, return the favor? Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, the crowd definitely seemed to have won the Purple One's approval, making a ton of noise, filling in verses unbidden, and being enthusiastic in call-and-response, as on Cool, one of The Time's signature cuts. After a segwey back to hitsville for U Got the Look, Prince went back off the beaten path, teasing the intro to Question of U (from Graffitti Bridge) but launching into a song I didn't recognize, that most people seem to be calling Gingerbread Man, and which I assume is new. [One reason it's taken me so long to post this review is because of how skeptical I am about this song's newness, but I can't find a reference to it anywhere and no one else seems to have ID'd it either. I'm sure some Internet Dickwad ($0.25, Gabe & Tycho) will step up with "That's not new, I heard him perform it in Tokyo in '96! I though you said you were a Prince fan!" or it'll turn out to be an obscure cover. So be it--it's new to me.] The song, a hip thrusting slow jam in the mode of Scandalous or Do Me Baby, found Prince in a carnal mode we haven't seen so much of since he got all Jehova's Witness-y on us.

After that, the songs all started to sound like finales. You had a full version of Purple Rain, then a break, then a slightly off-kilter version of Kiss, then a break, then She's Always In My Hair, which moved cleanly into If I Was Your Girlfriend. Monae joined him onstage for If I Was Your Girlfriend, putting on a bravura performance where the two singers tag-teamed a single mike, which they passed back and forth like a relay baton while dancing up a storm, and not tripping over an audience member who seemed to have been brought on stage purely for the purpose of upping the degree of difficulty.

After another break, Prince came back for his first official encore, taking to the piano with little or no band accompaniment for a medley of Do Me Baby, I Wanna Be Your Lover, and How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore, and a full version of Sometimes It Snows In April. The second encore was more perfunctory, an opportunity to invite a lot of people from the expensive seats up to dance onstage, and to get Cyndi Lauper vamping impressively while Prince played Jungle Love.

For two people who never leave the house, La Chiquita and I have had a good year in concerts: we saw one of my favorite jazz performances a couple of months back when Chucho Valdes was in town, and this concert made a great capper for 2010. The only criticisms I could see were that Prince's band, while competent, wasn't going to make anyone forget the Revolution or even the early versions of the NPG, and that (with the possible exception of that Gingerbread Man song) every song was at least 19 years old. Strange, given that one of my complaints when I last saw Prince in concert was that performing the hits left room for little else, but I didn't mind the greatest hits format of this concert, or the exclusion of his catalog after Diamonds & Pearls. More than a nostalgia-fest, the concert felt a bit like a time machine--Prince looked, sounded, and danced like someone 20 years younger, the only concessions to middle age I could see were several strategically-placed teleprompters, and a little less abandon in the way he threw his body around the stage. But with my hands still vibrating at the end of the concert from an evening of nearly non-stop applause, I couldn't have cared what year it was--it felt like I was a kid again.