Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The One U Wanna C?

Prince at the 02 Arena

Reports on Prince’s 21 night stand in London have so far been mostly ecstatic. The few murmurings of dissent seem to have been judged as tantamount to some unforgivable act of treason. Those lucky enough to attend the opening night (and I suspect the same will be true of the closing night too) were treated to a lengthy set concluding with a generous three encores. Elsewhere in the run, he seems to have been onstage for barely 70 minutes. The ticket price, set at his magic number of £31.21 may be reasonable – but all are paying the same amount, even for the ghastly seats at the top level of the 02, set back at a severe distance from the stage, and where the sound quality was horrific.

My own experience of two of the shows suggests that the minority of dissenters have been right to express their reservations. Although the show on Friday 17th August was considerably better than the earlier show on the 7th, there was little in either performance to imply that Prince was doing anything other than hitting the button marked ‘cruise control’. The second show was never anything less than entertaining – but surely this is the very least we expect from someone with Prince’s star quality? He is not, after all, a Janet Jackson or a Madonna – being as much an immensely versatile musician and outrageously gifted songwriter as great performer.

Prince’s great contribution to popular music has been to break down stereotyped boundaries – there is no ‘white’ and ‘black’ in his music and he remains as likely to be as influenced by new wave and soft rock balladry as George Clinton’s P-Funk. Similarly, even when his albums have been completely lacklustre (sadly the new ‘Planet Earth’ album falls squarely into this category – giving it away free with the Mail generated hype the content alone could never have mustered), none has sounded remotely like its immediate predecessor.

The centrepiece of the set on the 7th was a lengthy and somewhat lumbering funk jam session giving legendary JBs saxophonist Maceo Parker a little too much space to blow. Parker has impressive power and muscularity, but little in the way of subtlety and this is hardly what most punters paid to see. ‘Musicology’ was supremely groovy, but segueing it into a covers of ‘Pass The Peas’ and ‘Play That Funky Music’ (complete with unwitting members of the audience dancing onstage – presumably only those with the VIP tickets near enough to get picked out) seemed pointless and indulgent. Similarly, the ghastly cabaret jazz take on ‘What A Wonderful World’ that enabled Prince to make the first of two costume changes (mercifully there were no ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ in this show) was a step too far into the realms of mouldy cheese.

Whilst the set list for the 7th available at fansite housequake.com lists 29 songs, I only counted 12 original songs played in full, which for an artist now on his 26th album is simply not enough. There was a strange and surreal aura to this show which mostly served to emphasise Prince’s diva tendencies rather than his manifest talents. Prince opened the show alone with his guitar, playing a rather tantalising medley of some of his greatest songs (‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘Alphabet Street’, ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’). This would have been a masterful way to open an intimate club show, but in the cavernous environment of the hellish former millennium dome, it hardly constituted playing to the gallery. Also, if anyone rashly assumed that this would presage a barrage of hits played in full with the band, they would have been left mightily disappointed. Prince somehow managed to make this worse by breaking up the set with a second medley performed alone at the piano. Both medleys demonstrated his technical ability, but left me with a curiously dissatisfied feeling – a little inappropriate given that much of Prince’s lyrical output focuses on his ability to satiate!

This show seemed to demonstrate Attention Defecit Disorder more than stamina. The closing run of ‘Kiss’ and ‘Purple Rain’ and the delightfully energetic encore of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ provided crowd pleasing moments, particularly the mass singalong that ended ‘Purple Rain’, but it all seemed too little too late really. He obviously remains convinced of his own genius, breaking off from the lyric of Purple Rain to exclaim ‘I just love this song!’ Well, quite right, so do we – but we love plenty of other Prince songs too, and he could do so much more than treat his catalogue with brash and arrogant contempt.

The set on the 17th was structured much more sensibly for the nature of the venue, with the full band starting the show immediately with ‘1999’. How much better that the whole audience was brought to its feet from the very outset! Similarly, moving the segue of ‘I Feel For You’ into ‘Controversy’ to the end of the show gave it greater prominence, and emphasised the quality of Prince’s early material as much as his mid-period hits.

The funk jam was tauter and more spirited this time and we were ‘treated’ to an endearingly shambolic vocal and dance from Bourne Ultimatum actress Julia Stiles, who conveniently happened to have a front row seat. It was a shame she didn’t brush up on her lyrics! The inclusion of ‘7’ (one of his better New Power Generation-era moments) provided a welcome surprise in the main set and mercifully he restricted himself to just one medley this time, this one delivered with more humour and less bravado. Sadly, it contained mere snippets of some of his greatest songs – there’s simply no justification for only delivering ten seconds apiece of ‘Raspberry Beret’ and ‘When Doves Cry’ in order to favour much less interesting songs such as ‘Cream’, ‘Guitar’ and ‘Musicology’ in the main set!

The ‘in the round’ stage design was a clever gimmick but not, in the event, particularly well utilised. Prince spent most of his time facing one way, so a sizeable part of the audience paid to look directly at the back of his head. He proved better at engaging the side stands, moving to either side of the stage (predictably designed to replicate his androgynous symbol) and giving the lively crowd plenty of encouragement.

The quality of sound at both shows was hopeless – even close to the stage there was little definition. There seems little point in having two keyboardists in the band if there’s precious little possibility of distinguishing the individual parts above a nasty low-end rumble. Sometimes even Prince’s vocals became inaudible. This is clearly something this enormous venue needs to work on, although as arenas go, it’s clearly preferable to Wembley simply by virtue of serving good beer (Murphy’s ?!?!) and relatively adventurous fast food.

Prince is justified in bragging (‘too many hits – too little time!’), and maybe it would have been better had he graced London with his presence more than once in the last ten years. The tremendous weight of expectation has rendered it difficult to judge these concerts with any real degree of objectivity. As an entertainer, Prince may have lived up to those expectations but he has surely failed to seize a golden opportunity by not surpassing them.

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