I feel that a visit to The Ultimate Live Experience is long overdue. I have listened to a number of aftershows from 1995, but the main shows from 1995 have been largely neglected by me. So to right this wrong, today I will take a listen to the first concert of the tour, the first of five nights at the Wembley Arena in London. It is the perfect place to begin, not only is it the first concert of the tour, it is also the longest performance of the tour, clocking in at just over two hours fifteen. A lengthy listen, we get the full gamut of Prince’s oeuvre at the time, drawing from all the genres he was experimenting with as he strove to find a new direction after symbolically killing off “Prince”.
3rd March 1995, Wembley Arena, London
The opening “Endorphinmachine” could be taken as a statement of intent, although nothing else in the setlist comes close to the introductory razor guitar lines and impassioned howls from Prince in this opening number. A vibrant performance, it fails to fully fire as Prince’s sharp guitar is later lost as he solo’s, sounding like a loose rubber band than an inflamed rock guitar. I like the performance far more than the recording in this case, and this song is gains a lot from my nostalgic memory rather than the bootleg itself.
The bootleg takes on a fat sound as Prince and the NPG tackle a cover of Graham Central Station’s “The Jam.” The funk hangs and drips from the bass lines of Sonny T. and although this song is a staple of the time, to the point of almost being stale, at this first concert of the tour it still has a freshness and the band hang plenty of there own style of funk on the song. The song is further galvanized with the guitar line that Prince brings to the party, an inner steel that provides a strength to the otherwise slippery greasy sound.
The recording picks up the lower end very well, and thus the opening drum rolls of “Shhh” carry an extra depth and the sense of an impending storm. Prince’s opening verse betrays no trace of what is to come, it is the quiet before the storm that blows up in the following few minutes. It is a satin and steel performance, Prince’s vocals glistening with a pop sheen before the guitar muscles it’s way into the song, firstly intertwining with the soundscape Prince is painting, and then forcefully bringing a quiet fury of it’s own into the music, the guitar seemingly taking on a life of it’s own as it pulls down the pillars of the song upon itself it a Samsonesque performance.
The quality of the recording overshadows the performance of “Days Of Wild” that follows. On the bootleg there is some distortion on Prince’s vocals, and although it is slight, it is enough to break the previously woven spell. The song would in normal circumstance be a tour de force of Princes reinvented funk, and the hard nosed performance style of this iteration of the NPG, unfortunately all that is lost as the recording fails to truly capture the all crushing power of the performance. It’s enjoyable enough, but after hearing many other versions in circulation I know that it could be a whole lot better.
“Now” brings a lightness to the concert following the skull crushing “Days Of Wild.” There is a sense of fun to Prince’s performance, the humour of the lyrics reflected in his vocal delivery. The true power behind the throne though is Morris Hayes and Tommy Barbarella, their twin keyboard assault carrying both rhythm and melody in a combination that fills out the other wise thin sound. The coda with Mayte dancing only highlights this further as the keyboard wheezes over the sparse drum beat.
The NPG become a well drilled funk machine for ” Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine,” Prince drawing obvious inspiration from James Brown both in song selection and in the performance he draws from his band. It’s a faultless performance (at least to my ears) and it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, coming after the previous four blockbusters it is instead a mere pop song length of three minutes thirty seconds.
“Johnny” was only played at a handful of shows through out this 1995 tour, and it’s appearance on this bootleg is most welcome. A song that has appeared at countless aftershows, it is refreshing to hear it in this case getting a wider audience at an arena show. The NPG effortless morph from a funk band to a blues band, filling the arena with a purposeful groove that lets Prince do whatever he wants over the top of, in this case having the crowd chant and sing him through the final minute.
It had been barely two weeks since the release of “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” yet the crowd welcome the song with a warm cheer that suggests it had already planted itself in their collection consciousness. Prince breaks the song up, undermining some of the sweet pop it is normally dusted in, and instead taking it firmly into his realm as he draws an extra level of musicality and an element of fun from it. It stands on its own two feet as a solid performance that fits in well with the surrounding songs of gravitas and unfettered emotion.
There is no gravitas at all about “Pussy Control,” it is raw and unadulterated, Prince saying and playing exactly how he wants as he makes a statement about feminism in a way that only Prince could. There is an innate power in Prince performance, his vocals have panache and the story he spins could be understood even if you didn’t catch every word. On the downside, the recording is a touch on the thin side, Prince sounds well enough, but there is no knock out punch as one might expect from such a song.
I rejoice in hearing “Letitgo,” although in truth the performance isn’t as exciting as the thought of the song itself. Prince’s pop hooks lure me in, but it is Tommy Barbarella who provides the most nourishing moment with a keyboard solo that is the understated core of the song.
A coolness breezes though the recording with a frictionless performance of “Pink Cashmere.” It’s all silk as Prince provides a scented candles vocal performance to match the luxurious sound of the NPG. In a setlist full of heavy hitters, this comes as the most surprising moment, a delicate rose surrounded by denser and more demanding material.
The following “(Lemme See Your Body) Get Loose!” comes in a hurried frenzy, there is no time to find your feet of feel your well into the song, everything is up front and in your face from the opening barrage of music and lyrics until the last notes fade from the keyboard. It is breath-taking, and even more so again the backdrop of the previous “Pink Cashmere,” although I find it doesn’t have the same bite and sense of importance as some of the earlier songs. Despite its fast pace, the concert lags at this point, and there is a definite lull as there comes long pause between songs.
Prince pushes the right buttons as he introduces “I Love U In Me” with lacy guitar work, before giving a vocal performance that matches it for delicate intricacy. The song stays with this low lit feel, even as the band add the occasion blow, its all about Prince’s soft vocals and feather light guitar. This is easily the most tender moment on the bootleg, and even my stone heart softens a little as I listen.
The sound of Vegas is in the air for “Proud Mary,” this is the sound of Prince the showman as he gives a lively performance of the much loved classic. It is a great burst of energy, although I find it rather empty and it doesn’t add a lot to the show. A more prolonged performance may have delivered more nuances, but this is a short sharp shock the quickly burns out.
The oriental introduction of “7” is the only part of the show that pulls directly from Prince and some of his material from 1992. It is grating to see it shoulder to shoulder with his current material, I do appreciate it’s appearance but it does highlight the divide between Prince’s old work and his current state of mind. “7” plays with an easy shuffle, the quality of the bootleg adding to its loose and easy way. For a few minutes it feels as if we are listening to another show entirely as Prince takes us down the wormhole to his former self, a few minutes where the crowd has a chance to celebrate his history as a musical artist.
I was prepared to give all of my love to “Dolphin,” and despite a bright start I find the shrill guitar sound too much for my tastes. My ear isn’t good enough to say what is wrong, but the guitar is too much for the song, and in this case it derails what would otherwise be a warm performance. The sound get worse as the song goes on, the mix is not even and leaves the song unpleasant and a disappointment. There is redemption in the final singing of the chorus and coda that brings it to an end, but over all it leaves me feeling flat.
“Get Wild” spins and revolutions, but there is almost too much going on, despite the best intentions of the band it sounds like a collection of performances that have little cohesion. Listening to each individually is revealing, but never once does it sound like a song with an over arching theme or message. I digest it piece by piece, but I never fully engage with the core of the song that lays tantalizingly out of reach.
The recording changes with “Race,” it immediately sounds distant and the quality is a lot lower than what has been previously heard. As the second song of the encore it displays an extra push towards the finish line, which makes the downgraded sound all the more disappointing. The horn sound does cut through with their polished brightness, and as always the keyboards steam on with a battleship sound that rides over all the rest of the band. The keyboard remains the hero, and in the proceeding “Super Hero” it remains the mainstay. “Super Hero” stays with the upbeat sound, adding an extra sense of adventure as Prince and the band draw on a classic 70’s funk sound for the song. The lively performance makes up for the disappointing “Race” and this portion of the show ends on a high as the NPG swing and funk into the night, the final appearance of “Outta Space” sounding like a futuristic update of The Commodore’s “Machine Gun.”
Prince’s vocals are the best thing about “Billy Jack Bitch,” the rest of the song is lost to the quality of the tape. It’s not recorded badly, its just that the band is barely heard behind Prince’s vocals. With the horn lines sun bleached and distant, the song loses some of it’s incisiveness,and although I enjoy Prince’s lyrics, the song remains just as elusive as some the previous few numbers.
“Eye Hate U” promises much, but actually delivers little. The start flatters to deceive, Prince’s crisp opening verse and first sparkling chorus rapidly disappears from view as the song vanishes with the recording cutting out and “319” emerging as the next song.
After the snippet of “Eye Hate U” I had hoped for more from “319,” but Prince keeps it brief with a one inch punch performance that gives us one verse and one chorus before we head into the glory of the final song of the bootleg.
“Gold” sounds every inch like the triumphant finale that it is, uplifting, warm, and building to a powerful climax that has Prince striking guitar-god poses while the sound from his instrument gives credence to the pose. The mix is slightly out, but there is no denying the performance, this is Prince emerging from the wideness and reclaiming his spot at the top of the pop pantheon with a spirited rendition that plays to all his strengths, a spiritual vocal delivered paired with a guitar solo delivered from heaven itself. If only the recording could match the moment, instead I mentally remix it as I listen, restoring Princes guitar sound from a shrill whine to a full blooded roar, while mentally beefing up the bands sound. As so often seems to be the way, we have a great performance with a less than average recording.
And so ends the longest concert of this brief tour. The bootleg is in places very good, but mostly it is average, there is only so much you can do with the source material after all. The concert itself though is a knock out. The crowd are muted throughout most of the show, most of this material was unreleased and unfamiliar at the time, but Prince and the NPG give an all encompassing show that takes in all there talents and genre expanding music they were dabbling in at the time. This is one of the classic Prince shows, as he for the first time unveils his new sound and look to a wider audience, and although uncomfortable at the time, it has become one of the highly regarded eras of his career. Much like his One Night Alone Tour, it gives us not what we want, but rather what we need. Not perfect, but highly recommended.
Thanks for reading (if you made it this far),
See you again next week