Prince, et. al (Carlos Santana and Sheila E.)
February 21, 2011
Better than: What a lot of people who ride around in limousines could have been doing last night, apparently.
So yeah, it was awesome.
The first of Prince's
now three-show stint in Oakland, the whole thing announced out of nowhere not even a week ago, sold out Oracle Arena to the rafters last night. The concert was boisterous, weird, confusing, spectacular, filled with non-Prince performances, and all-in-all pretty much amazing. Carlos Santana showed up onstage. Prince made a furry-booted cameo in Larry Graham's opening show, and didn't sing all that much in his own. The setlist was as much of a tease as the man we were there to see. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Here's a recap of what stood out most from Prince's first "Welcome 2 America" tour stop on the West Coast.
1. The Stage
A walk-around-sized Love Symbol #2
was last night's performance platform, complete with lighting along the perimeters and floors that underscored the massive size of the thing. But the best part was the elevating square at the main intersection of the cross, which allowed Prince and his clan of backup singers to be raised and lowered like gods. (No pedestrian entrances and exits for this crew -- until later anyway.) We must also mention the purple piano on one end, used more as a standing platform for the five-foot-two Prince to incite the audience from than a musical instrument, but a lovely ornament nonetheless.
(known best for being the bassist in Sly & the Family Stone) had finished his opening set and seemingly departed the stage when the drums kicked back up again. Then there was that voice
over the PA. When the lights went up, Prince was standing at the mic in white tights, big furry white boots, and a loose black pancho-like thing, and he and Graham's band dashed into "Everyday People." Prince at the beginning of his own set wore a striking all-white suit with a black-lined label. First costume change: into a silk-looking white shirt and pants. Final encore: gold-sequined pants (ridiculous, incredible) and blouse-y gold shirt worthy of framing Prince's chest hair.
Only a few songs into the show, Prince disappeared for Sheila E's "The Glamorous Life." But as the song waned, he suddenly returned with a new (but still all-white) outfit, a Telecaster, and a friend: the legendary-guitarist-about-town Carlos Santana, who grabbed away Prince's axe. As the Latin beats rumbled, and Prince left for the piano, Santana promptly began to wail like only Santana can wail. He was playing through Prince's percussive and muscular-sounding guitar rig, which sounded a lot better than that time he did that syrupy thing with Rob Thomas. And after an extended jam that saw him noodling up as far as the fretboard goes, the dapper-hatted Santana quickly made his exit, as Prince put the shock of what had just happened into words. ("It was Carlos Montana!" yawped the lady behind me. But at least it wasn't Kim Kardashian
4. What Prince Does to a Crowd
Maybe we missed the ecstasy counter. But most everyone -- the twenty-to-fortysomething girls out for a night on the town, and the Rich Dudes taking out their ladies, and the all-dude groups -- seemed ultrapumped to begin with (even as they waited in the wind outside for the doors to open) and increasingly elated as the show went on. The cheers for Prince and for Santana were a tsunami-sized roars, and many in the crowd could be heard gushing profusely on the way out. Certainly my impressions were skewed by the ecstatic ladies behind me, one of whom would shout "Prince!" then shake random people's shoulders about every five minutes. But then, how often does that happen?
5. The Setlist
Weird. No "1999" or "Little Red Corvette" that these ears heard (Did we somehow miss 'em?) but "Uptown," "Raspberry Beret," "Kiss," "If I Was Your Girlfriend," and the mind-meltingly great "Purple Rain." Also more random picks like the slow-jam "Insatiable," Rihanna cover "Rude Boy," and, for a closer, "Dreamer," a Hendrix-y guitar rawk-out off 2003's Lotusflow3r.
6. "Purple Rain"
Fifteen-thousand-strong sing-along. Real-life arena reverb. Epic guitar solo -- the actual sound of heartstrings tearing apart -- which continued for what felt like eight minutes, every single one of them welcome. Huge flag being waved melodramatically onstage. Prince totally nailing that crazy vocal part where he howls "Honey, I know, I know, I know, times have changed" and seeming to actually shove himself into the microphone before collapsing. A million "whooooah oh ohs," and then a million more. And then, at the big end, the cannons shot purple confetti, making for actual. freaking. purple. rain.
7. Prince's Inhuman Voice
It was the above moment in "Purple Rain" that first hit us over the head with the sheer variability of Prince's voice, and how it leaps from its sultry lower registers into a sparkling falsetto like that's just a regular thing to do. Guy sure showed off the falsetto enough last night, too, especially during the slow-jam medley near the end. But Prince's larynx produces the strange and captivating conflict of eyes not believing ears: He slams from one sound into another so easily you think it just couldn't be the same person doing it.
8. The Purple One's Guitar-Wielding Habits
There was no side stage with this setup, so all the tech people were down below on the floor. Which wasn't a problem for Prince, because when he decided he didn't need his guitar anymore, he just threw it off the stage in their general direction. No warning (that we saw). No looking. Just a toss of the ol' axe. To us, this inclination appeared awesome, careless, and diva-ish. Guess Prince's crew is well-trained to catch heavy sharp expensive objects.
9. Larry Graham
Sly's bass player opened the night up with zoot suits and the spicy funk of his band Graham Central Station. Prince himself announced their entrance over the PA: "This is the best place on Earth to be right now." It was fun, but not too exciting, until Graham turned a bass-and-drums breakdown into a swirling fuzz-funk solo that would have put a grin on Hendrix's face. Graham got even better when when he and the band (and eventually Prince; see above) tore through a medley of Sly's greatest hits.
10. The Encore Situation
Nothing about a Prince show is normal, but the end of last night was truly weird. We'd heard that the show was going to end at 11, but didn't really believe that Prince was going to close the night with the ultra-slow-jam "Adore." So we and thousands of others stood in the dark after the song ended, watching the lights flicker around the edge of his stage and cheering. When the clock hit 11, the house lights flashed on. Instantly, huge boos and yells of disapproval echoed throughout the arena. We wondered if there was a disagreement between Prince -- who'd been howling that he wanted to play all night -- and those in charge of running the arena. But one guy working the spotlight, far overhead, waved for the audience to keep cheering, and we did. After eight minutes, Prince returned with his bassist and drummer, walked up to the stage, and launched into the squirrelly blues-rock of "Dreamer." But then they played the first third of the song with the house lights on, as if the parents of the evening hadn't quite resigned themselves to the fact that the show was still going on.
And Now, Complaints
- Prince let his band, especially his backup vocalists, do a lot of the singing last night while he spent large chunks of the show away from the stage. Considering he left some of his best numbers out of the set, this seems lazy.
- His Purpleness sounded much clearer than Graham did last night, but the sound during Prince was still echoey and boomy for a lot of songs.
- It frustrates me when artists talk about playing all night or playing as long as the audience wants when they're obviously not going to do it. They know that, and we know that, and they must know that we know that. I feel manipulated and lied to. If you were still playing, Prince, I'd still be there.
Note: A third Prince show was added for this Thursday. Tickets go on sale by 10 a.m. Tuesday. By the last show of the run, we expect Prince will have figured out how to squeeze "Little Red Corvette" into his set and still end by 11.
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