By Mark Guarino
You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think Prince isn’t enjoying his current blitzkrieg of media coverage. At the Allstate Arena Friday, the first of five nights, he plopped himself down in an easy chair and pretended to block out the sound of 18,000 cheering fans by reading — what else? — a recent issue of Rolling Stone with his picture on the cover.
Ever since his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, the 46-year-old has led a very savvy campaign to throw a spotlight on his relevancy in today’s marketplace and also to celebrate his survival in it. Even though he toured as late as two years ago, he labeled his current emergence a comeback and, borrowing that hoary showbiz standby, a last call for the hits.
Many times during his two-hour, 15-minute show he made digs at the low bar of expectations set by canned phenomenons like Britney Spears who have flooded the charts in recent years. He joked about lip syncing and, standing in front of his eight-member band, declared “This is real music. These are real musicians.”
To drive that point home, Prince’s show was decidedly free of spectacle. It was designed as a big band funk and soul revue set in stone by James Brown, his spiritual mentor, in the early ‘60s. The first hour was a single extended funk odyssey, peppered with early hits (“Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4U,” “When Doves Cry”), new songs (“Musicology”), references to new generation heirs OutKast and a full palate of band solos.
Swallowed in one breath, it was both exhausting and exhilarating. Prince is not an artist known for holding back, which has been a fault and strength. As he gave equal time to every corner of the cross-shaped stage, charisma flowed from his fluid dance twirls and poses. Veteran Brown sax player Maceo Parker led a three-person horn section that helped set even the older songs inside similar sounding fat grooves. When the deluge was over, it was no wonder a wave of people scrambled to the lobby for a much-deserved breather.
As much as the New Power Generation kept pace, it was Prince who stood out as its most flamboyant player. When he strapped on a bass, he battled bassist Rhonda Smith in a mad burst of slapping strings. His guitar moments were flourishes of Jimi Hendrix-like extremism, from a rush of notes to a single-note solo, even going so far as to lay the instrument on the ground and cover it with a white cloth.
The middle set featured Prince on a rotating stool playing an acoustic guitar (purple of course) and leading a breezy singalong of older songs (including “Cream,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Raspberry Beret”). His appetite for carnal pleasures was muted, as he let the crowd handle the spicier lyrics.
When the band returned for the final blowout — a mixture of jazz fusion, former hits (“Kiss”) old school soul (“Soul Man”), party funk (“Life ‘O’ The Party”), a ballad (“Call My Name”) and the show-ending anthem “Purple Rain” — Prince invited over a dozen female fans to fill the stage picture. No surprise once again that it made him stand out even more. Which was the point, after all.