A Prince among men

An intimate appearance by the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known As

The Tabernacle, Nov. 22 — Dearly beloved, how often do U get the chance 2 stand six feet away from someone who helped define your musical identity? No, make that who helped define current music as a whole. Myself, I’ve done it twice: once when the Cure played the Roxy last year, now once again when the purple one, Prince, played the Tabernacle.
OK, rewind. Unlike with the Cure’s Robert Smith, I didn’t actually get to stand six feet away from him. Maybe, say, ten people back. But how often do you happen to end up next to Indigo Girl Emily Saliers and some of her friends jumping up and down and shouting with glee like schoolgirls while deeply entrenched on the steaming standing-room only general admission floor? Now that’s only at a very special, sold-out Prince concert in Atlanta.
It was truly an odd mix of Prince “fams” — both young and old, real and recent (it was a night of knowing people or trying to get to know people in the know) — who paid to be before musical royalty on the Hit N Run tour, Prince’s string of small club dates announced usually two days prior and supposedly acting as a rehearsal for a larger world tour to follow. Atlanta’s date was sponsored by Kiss 104.1, who Prince lauded for being the first (only?) Atlanta station to play his new song.
Prince brought in his own black with brown tolex speaker support and supercharged-yet-subtle lights, but the stage — cluttered with instruments and lit by the blue of a video projector and a yellow and purple oil wheel on the bass drum — stayed unclaimed, save for one announcer tease, until 9:30 (only 30 minutes late). The show began as Najee — who played many wind instruments, but mostly clarinet and sax - began blowing from the second story balcony. Then, after a long solo, the rest of the band emerged, and the disembodied voice of Prince reverberated through a snippet megamix while a vortex swirled on the screen. Then the crowd went mad — causing the entire Tabernacle to literally shake, the floor bouncing up and down — as the diminutive but powerful player emerged to begin “the Experience.”
Prince, looking youthful with his shoulder-length hair flipped out at the bottom, wore a sort of black Chinese-shirt with a clerical collar labeled “NPG” (one of his three costumes this evening), his yellow strat strapped to him. The opening mix of “Uptown/Controversy/Mutiny” set the mood for a night of medleys. The band — Mr. Hayes, keys; Rhonda, bass; Mr. Blackwell, doing all kinds of crazy marching band stick-twirling shit on the drums; and Najee — were tight, but tightest was the body on Geneva, Prince’s gorgeous, limber dancer. Prince would occasionally relinquish a guitar to join her moves (at one point rolling around/humping the floor); a highlight was when they wiggled on a white lounge-seat during the opening of “Little Red Corvette,” as calming videos of water images and double helixes played on the screen.
While Geneva worked it the entire show, she certainly couldn’t outwork Prince, who seemed to be having a great time — at one point, he even pleasantly put up with an audience-chosen dancer trying to get freaky with him. He repeatedly climbed onto speakers to solo and slap hands with members of the crowd. And when he’d incite the audience to sing along, such as during “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” you weren’t sure if he was trying to seduce the crowd or vice versa.
Prince certainly didn’t have to work much — though he gave it all — to win the crowd’s affections. He’s still got that devilish gleam in his eyes and a smoldering smirk which had middle-aged women leaning as far over the balcony railing as possible to offer themselves, or at least their voices, to him.
Prince played all the classics, too many to list (check the Hits volumes or Prince’s website for a primer), but there were highlights. Eddie Van Halen once said in a guitar magazine that Prince was often mistakenly not thought of as a great guitarist, and the Van Halen-ish chords that opened a reworked version (almost Springsteen-ish) of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” showed why you should take the man seriously.
Every song was a sing-a-long, but the most transcendant moment began with the first note of “Purple Rain.” It’s impossible to accurately describe the feeling of experiencing a song like “Purple Rain” (or Springsteen’s “Born To Run”), where an entire building full of people are synchronized in a way that’s all too beautiful and far too rare.
Before the encore of “Come On” (during which he auctioned off his fedora to a guy in the balcony for $60), Prince slowed down the show to discuss what was wrong with radio, disposable music and corporate programming, and how music represented the neighborhoods and both needed to be cleaned up and strengthened.
But that didn’t stop him from playing old and new radio songs — both his material and that of others — at the official afterparty at Midtown’s eleven50, which ran until after 3 a.m. After some audience participation in a Q&A on the meaning of Thanksgiving and why Prince doesn’t celebrate (holi)days (because you can’t count to infinity so why count at all?), the band played some Prince classics — including “Kiss” — as well as a Santana medley, “Fight the Power” featuring the man himself, Chuck D, and a bit of OutKast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad.” Maybe Prince has been listening to a bit of radio recently.
So what was the Hit N Run tour? Well, as the name suggests, it was a chance for Prince to come quickly through town and plow through his back catalog — now that’s he’s free of his Warner contract and able to celebrate being Prince again — and pull from a magical bag of segues and surprises. And what best sums up the night? Well, something posted by “Raymond” to the New Power Generation official website put it: “You better bring a fire hose, cause ‘P’ and the band left the stage on fire.”
Truer words are hard to find, but I’ll try: If, as Prince sings, there are thieves in the temple, Atlanta’s date on the Hit N Run tour showed they certainly haven’t stolen Prince’s soul. Like the man said, he’ll be around as long as his audience is. Long may he reign.