1994 and 1995 were times of tremendous change for Prince, but looking back one can clearly see that the roots for this change were planted in 1993, the transformations of the next two years are signposted throughout the Act II shows. Prince’s concert performances of the Act II tour have evolved from the Act I portion of the tour, some of his more outrageous concepts have been reigned in, and although it still remains a wild ride he has tempered the previous excesses. It becomes a tighter show, and Princes overall story arc comes into tighter focus as he strips the fat from the show. This week I will be watching on of the better performances of the Act II tour, the concert from Madrid. It is a well filmed show, although incomplete in the middle portion. There is a full audio recording in circulation, although at this point I feel no inclination to to include it here. Even in this incomplete form, it is still essential viewing as Prince carves out a new niche for him and his music.
August 21, 1993, Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, Madrid
One can feel the thrill of excitement in the air as the concert opens with “My Name Is Prince,” and there is a vivid rush as the lights come up and the concert takes flight. Twenty five years on and we can join Prince with his tease of the crowd as Mayte plays his part while he sings off-stage. It’s all too obvious now, Mayte does a good impersonation but lacks the high heels, and one can hear the gasp of comprehension as Mayte strips of her disguise. Part excitement, part confusion, it is a great concert moment as she reveals her athletic dancer’s body and writhes to the music.
Funk is in the air as Prince finally appears, a pocket rocket at the back of the stage singing “Sexy M.F.” The bootleg isn’t perfect sounding, or looking, but the performance remains one of his best, the band lock in a holy unison that makes this brand of funk a religious experience, Prince, Mayte and the music a trinity worthy of 1993.
For the briefest of seconds it feels as if I have stumbled across the wrong gig as the band effortlessly lifts us to the highs of “The Beautiful Ones,” the grease and funk of “Sexy M.F.” all but forgotten as Prince pitches the music at our hearts rather than our feet. Lust is replaced by pure love, and a younger Prince emerges from the music, the last 10 years shedding off him as he takes us back ten years in the blink of an eye. There is no need for the lights to bathe him in purple, the music itself wraps him in this noblest of hues, the song no mere exercise in nostalgia, rather a fully immersive Purple Rain experience just as passionate and uplifting as the era itself.
Prince continues to roll back the clock with a version of “Let’s Go Crazy” that stays reasonably faithful to the original. It does have an extra layer of funk, just a little extra slip n slide that we didn’t hear on record, and although the guitar heroics are down played, it is as fresh as I have heard it for a long time. It’s a punchy and playful few minutes and serves more than a hollow gesture and nod to the past.
“Kiss” takes this element of funk, blows it up ten times, and plasters it right across the next five minutes of the show. Prince is entirely subservient to the music, the funk remaining to the fore, Prince doing little more than riding on the music as it flows in a never ending stream from the stage. The horns and Levi on guitar do more than anyone in creating this whirlpool of sound, and are the mainstays of the band for the next ten minutes. As sublime as this music is, the bootleg becomes a frustrating experience at this time as it zooms back, rendering much of the action of stage a mere blur to us here at home.
The previously stripped back sound of “Irresistible Bitch” is inflated by this extended funk band Prince has on stage. The music remains the main focus, the song and performance disappearing under the layers of horns and guitar. And that is perhaps for the best as the camera work remains unfocused and heavily obstructed.
With guitar in hand, Prince and his instrument become for the sole focus for “She’s Always in My Hair” Forget the song, forget the vocals, this is performance is all about one thing – Prince’s guitar. It is not a storm, nor a hammer blow, instead it is a weapon of finesse, Prince delicately cutting the music up with scalpel like stokes, the guitar in hand opening up new vistas as it cuts through the night, Prince revealing new worlds through his instrument of choice. Of particular note is the final few minutes as his takes us from power chord rock into flamenco territory, much to the delight of the crowd (and me here at home). It is an extraordinary display that leaves me grasping for words to describe it. I want all my guitar gods to be like this.
The crowd loves “Raspberry Beret,” but the truth is it can’t compare to the previous few minutes. However it does raise the energy levels of the crowd, before Prince again lets them down gently, the opening verse and chorus of “Sometimes It Snows In April” falling as soft as snow before the video jumps to the introduction to “The Cross.” The song lacks some of the weight I have heard in other renditions, but as the song kicks of midway through the balance is restored. The camera is in sharp focus at this stage, and that no doubts lifts my enjoyment levels immensely as Prince does his finest guitar posing of the night.
The video continues to frustrate as it jump cuts through the end of “The Cross,” but the following “Sign O The Times” is incendiary and is the strongest performance of Prince’s back catalog of the show. Prince laces it with a fearsome guitar line, but it is Michael B who grabs the final headlines with his apocalyptic drum sound rounding out the song.
“Purple Rain” set’s the standard for the next portion of the show, the most frustrating portion, as the video drops out several times, robbing the song of any momentum or emotional weight. It is inconsistent, and seems to do it at the worst possible moments, for example taking us from mid verse to the middle of the finale. Things don’t improve, we miss the entire instrumental interlude, before picking up at “Little Red Corvette.” It is apparently a stunning performance, with Prince alone at the piano, but we only see a minute of it, before catching 30 seconds of “Strollin” and “Scandalous,” and not much more or “Girls and Boys” before settling back in for “7.” The heart of the show is ripped out of the bootleg, leaving us to fill in the blanks from other sources.
The encores are much better served by the bootleg, the final 30 minutes playing like just the kind of party I’d like to attend. “1999” plays a brisk pace, leaving the album version huffing and puffing far behind. The camera is settled firmly on the stage, and this part of the show is very easy on the eye, with Prince and Levi holding court center stage. The segue into “Baby, I’m A Star” makes the two songs practically one, but there is better to come.
The band is at boiling point as they take on “America” a song that becomes an angry funk jam at this particular concert, especially with some furious horn riffs rising from the mix midsong pushing that song far beyond the stage and out into the stratosphere. Mayte shaking her thing is a pleasant enough distraction, but for Prince connoisseurs the real joy comes as Prince takes a lengthy drum solo that demonstrates his mastery of another instrument. Plenty has been written about his skills with the guitar and keyboards, but to see him is a revelation, and one can see he plays with as much heart on the drums as he does with the guitar. This is an excellent bootleg (asides from the midsection) and nowhere is it better than this point here as Prince demonstrates another essential element to his musicianship.
With the audience clapping the rhythm the band switch it up again with “D.M.S.R.” It gives way to pure groove, the song secondary to the feel of it, in a performance suggests the lengthy, groove infused, jams that will propel Prince through 1994/1995. With Prince on bass we have an insight to what will be a familiar sight in the coming years and although he is playing to an audience of 58,000, one could easily see this taking place in a smaller club with the groove and crowd interweaving through each other. With this laid back bass sound dominating, Prince takes us back to the song, this time with his vocals infused with a blues sound that suits the slowed down beast that it has become.
After one final frantic groove, Prince returns for the last song of the show, another low and slow version of “Johnny,” a song we will be hearing plenty of in the post Prince landscape of the next couple of years. With the house lights on, this performance becomes an expression of love between Prince and the audience, they embrace his sound and take every opportunity to contribute. It threatens to take on an aftershow feel, especially as they take up the NPG chant, and the concert turns into a communal celebration. The show comes to a playful end as Mayte coaxes Prince off stage, or attempts to, before she finally drags him off, much to the delight of the crowd. It may be part of the act, but it creates the feeling that Prince never wants to stop playing for the crowd, something that could well be true.
The Act II differs greatly from the Act I tour just a few months previous. The bulk of the material from the Symbol Album has been dropped, replaced with more overtly Prince material from the 1980’s . Yet, watching the concert here, one can’t help but feel that Prince is looking firmly into the future with both his look and overall sound. He will push far further in this direction in the next twelve months, leaving his Prince material behind completely, yet keeping this band and their monstrous funk sound. Here we see him laying the ground work for the slave era, we may not have known it at the time, but twenty five years later it is plain to see. This is one of the best video boots circulating from the Act II tour and as such must be held in the highest regard, an outstanding show, some great footage, albeit with the drop outs at the center of the show, and Prince on the cusp of the most interesting part of his career, this is definitely a must-see.
see you next week for the Act II finale