“Here we are folks/the dream we all dream of”
He may not have performed ‘U Got The Look’, but Prince’s 1987 sing-off with Sheena Easton best captures the euphoric mood for the 12,000 strong in attendance at the first of the Purple One’s two Melbourne dates. Whatever ‘the look’ is, Prince has still got it. In spades.
Through his own iconic myth-making, and as arguably the last great pop star of the ‘old skool,’ his stadium shows have taken on the status of grand-standing event. Not least in a city that’s been starved of his presence for some time.
Or as Prince kept goading coquettishly throughout his set, “How long has it been Melbourne?”
Eight years actually Mr. P. Rogers Nelson, but who’s counting?
Whether planted in the cheap seats, or had put a small mortgage to be amongst the club-style tables that girt the stage - Prince certainly gave good value in a two-and-a-half hour set that cherry-picked some twenty plus selections from his three-decade long catalogue.
To the sound of thunder, and screens flashing lightning over the same ‘love symbol’ shape that the impressive catwalk was designed on, the show opened with Purple Rain; albeit rendered as an acoustic instrumental by guitarist Andy McKee.
Soon his crowd-baiting plucking draws not only roars of applause, but like a siren’s call, also an Amazonian woman draped in a long white-veiled dress. She slinks across the catwalk towards the guitarist before kneeling before him, the two slowly disappearing as they descend by a central elevator into the maw of the stage. A trick that Prince and most of his entourage will abuse for much of the performance.
The deliberately drawn out drama does set the mood and tone for the evening’s sense of scale. Iindicative of the kind of faux symbolism the Purple One loves gorging on. The marriage of the evocatively cryptic and sheer spectacle that has come to define his career since the turn of the century.
Finally, the man himself emerges to perform ‘Gold’ (from 1995’s The Gold Experience) to an appropriate flood of beaming yellow light and confetti.
Subtlety, it seems, is not on tonight’s agenda.
The feverish crowd is soon introduced to his eleven-piece NPG possé that includes the aforementioned guitarist and Amazonian, bassist, drummer, two sets of keyboard wizards, three harmonising back-up singers, and a pair of identical dancers bluntly dubbed ‘The Twinz.’ And of course, running the show with the kind of combination of ruthless bandmaster and show-stopping flash previously reserved for James Brown, is Prince himself.
As he flaunts his way through ‘Jam of the Year’ or croons through ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’ it strikes, like one of his pointed high-heels, that this is a man who’s north of half-a-century; Yet the 53-year-old can still shred his electric with the best of them, dance and strut better than performers half his age – and yes – party like it’s forever 1999. For nearly three hours straight, mind.
He’s still given to spouting ridiculous rhetoric, one of many highlights coming during a suitably filthy ‘Cream.’ Following the line “You’re so cool/Everything you do is success,” with the proclamation that “I wrote this song while looking in the mirror.”
Along with his catcalls to the crowd (“don’t it feel good?”) and general persistent enquiries as to “where my choir/the party at?,” it’s the kind of sleazy charm that at once captures our imagined ideal of Prince as both cocky showman and self-conscious ‘artist at work’.
Given to extending his whip-tight grooves into lengthy jams that allow him to indulge in further crowd work. During the mid-section of the scintillating ‘Little Red Corvette’ he coos, “I got two words” before licking into repeated syrupy phrases of “slow down” into a call-and-response workout. Later, it’s just one word (on a steamy ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’).
The cheesiest part of the night however, was also arguably the one that drew the biggest applause. Prince, placed alone at a grand-piano-come-sampler, reeling of a medley of his hits that leaned perilously close towards Vegas showboating.
A few bars of ‘When Doves Cry’ driving the crowd wild before jumping erratically to ‘Darling Nikki’ via the obscure ‘Nasty Girl’. ‘Pop Life’ into snatches of ’Sign O The Times,’ and so on and so forth. Including a cheeky gag where the Purple maestro played ‘Single Ladies’ only to cut out with a “waiddaminute, I didn’t write that” with perfect pantomime delivery.
This abridged jukebox trick could easily be critiqued as being a cheap and nasty way to dole out fan-favourites, but at the same time it’s playfully ironic, really hammering home Prince’s own hammy admission that there’s simply “too many hits.”
Eventually he settles on a full performance of one of his biggest, an explosive ‘Kiss’ that rewards our patience for enduring his mash-up, even adding a dance-break finish of his finest and fanciest of foot-work.
For all its curious flaws and odd pacing (the ringleader constantly demanding the lights to his circus be brought up and down before vanishing on-and-off stage for minutes at a time)it’s the kind of eccentricities you’d expect, nay demand, at a Prince concert.
Even an epic-20ish-min-long version of Purple Rain, complete with a ‘life-affirming’ diatribe worthy of Bono mid-way, could unstick the sheer awe and power of Prince in the live setting.
Whether you view him as a maverick who forever changed pop’s DNA with his unconventional flair, or a madman now content to woo audiences with promises of ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ (another absentee in the setlist), only to strike them with decadent ego-stroking; we can all agree that the myth forever exceeds the man.
It’s all part of the unspoken agreement that we commit to when it comes to the artist-formerly-known-as-now-known-as-again.
Or to reference another Prince lyric, from the obscure b-side ‘Things Have Gotta Change’ – we “wouldn’t have it any other way/’cuz it’s part of the game we play.”
- Al Newstead