21 Nights book launch 2008

2007 was a big year for live concerts for Prince, 2008 not so much. Whereas 2007 saw him play a long residency at Vegas followed later in the year with a 21 night stand in London (coupled with a string of great aftershows), in 2008 Prince played only a handful of shows and a few guest appearances. Coachella is the most well-known of these concerts, but as far as bootlegs go, it is his 21 Night book release and charity concert that generates the better bootleg. The show sees Prince triumphantly celebrating his 21 nights in London with a show that is brings a satisfying mix of new songs, covers and some old friends. It’s a balanced mix and Prince plays with a freshness that infuses the music with an inner energy – all which can be clearly heard on a great, yet underrated, bootleg.

10th October 2008, Hotel Gansevoort, New York.

The bootleg starts in the best way possible with the inspiring debut of “Colonized Mind”. It may be its live debut, but it sounds faultless on the bootleg. Prince has the balance just right, with the song sounding both thoughtful and a powerful statement at the same time. This is emphasized with with Princes solos that are all brute strength. He may pause and linger over the lyrics, letting their meaning hanging in the air, but it is when he unleashes his guitar that he is at his euphoric mind bending best.  Its hard not to be caught up in the fervor of the moment, and as I stated earlier, this is the perfect beginning to the bootleg.

It may be only an audience recording, but it is a very good one and this is highlighted with “1999” that has a freshness I don’t usually associate with performances later in Prince’s career. It’s a sweaty, frenetic rendition, the band breaking loose of their restraints to set up the party early on. The recording is fantastic, not only do Prince and the band sound great, the crowd are equally involved. But for me the best feature of the recording is Prince’s rhythm guitar which adds a vibrancy and sense of urgency.

The storm quietens for a more relaxed “I Feel For You.” It is still upbeat and fun, but not quite as frantic as the previous “1999”. With scratchy guitar and quirky keyboard, it is of its era, and the following “Controversy” reinforces this as it comes quickly after as an euphoric celebration of Princes early 80s’ sound. It is a sizzling rendition, the band tearing through the song as if it was brand new. The attack doesn’t let up with Prince engaging in some guitar foreplay that doesn’t ever reach a climax put keeps me hanging on and crying for more.

Prince is content to stay with his back catalogue, “Sexy Dancer” feeling like a natural selection to follow. The “Sexy Dancer” – “Le Freak” combination was heard many times over 21 nights in London, and the later 20TEN tour, making it feel rather overplayed to my ears. This rendition differs in that it retains its freshness and is livened up by a Frédéric Yonnet harmonica solo that adds novelty without silliness. It may not look much when reading about it on the set list, but it is another important piece of the show.

The cover of the Rolling Stones “Miss You” is always going to be a standout for me. I don’t care if Prince plays it on a a ukulele  recorded underwater and reaches me on an 8th generation tape -I wanna hear it.  In this case things couldn’t get much better for me, it is another storming version, with Prince doing a his best to channel Mink Jagger -something he does supremely well. Equally of note is the color that Frédéric Yonnet brings to the song, his harmonica grounding the song with a classic sound. However, this moment is all about Prince, with his vocals that whine and rasp through the lyrics, then his guitar playing which goes to battle with Frédéric Yonnet before the inevitable victory that sees him ending the song amidst cheers from the crowd. The song is six minutes long, but that is no where long enough for me, I could quite happy listen to it three or four times in a row. (Blame my Dad, he was a Stones man)

The mood of the concert changes immensely as Prince drapes the stage in the blues -“Satisfied” easing the crowd into a hush. With the keyboard swells coming like deep breaths, it is Frédéric Yonnet that provides the rush and impetus that moves the song forward. In fact, most of the song belongs to Frédéric, and I must admit he certainly gets the best out of instrument as he wraps me up in the sound of his harmonica.

“Beggin Woman Blues” comes straight out of the same box, the groove so slow and steady that it is barely alive. I love the humorous aspects of the song, although the music itself hardly holds my attention. In the stillness of the music Prince’s lyrics stand as an oasis, and his words wash over me as it croons some of his funniest lines. The drama comes in the final minutes as the swirls and washes of organ emerge from the groove and crash like waves until we are washed ashore at the end of the song.

It is a sleek rendition of “Purple Rain” that follows easily on, smooth and shiny, there is no jagged edge in the music at all. Even Princes emotive cry fails to bring emotion to the song, the ingredients are in place yet it fails to draw me into the music. Prince’s guitar bristles to begin with, but then fails to build to anything more than a whitewashed version of something we have heard many times before. It’s a bit much to expect “Purple Rain” to deliver every time, and this is one of the rare occasions when the song doesn’t meet expectations.

The most exciting part of the bootleg comes next as Prince plays freewheelin’  version of “A Love Bizarre”. The funk on it is immense, and nowhere more so than in the opening stanza as Prince opens the song with some raw scratch guitar. It is synth-pop masterpiece with Prince’s guitar serving as the exclamation point on each jolt of funk/pop. His takes to a finely woven solo that spreads a spider web of sound across the recording, the funky roots still visible beneath it all.

In complete contrast is “What Is Hip?”, which is stuffed full of sounds and instruments. As good as they sound they don’ have the cohesive power of the previous number. On any other recording this would be good, yet on the this recording next to “A Love Bizarre” it is a let down. Less is more, and with no sharp edge the song overwhelms me with noise, the only standout being the chant of “what is hip!”

I’m not always the biggest fan of “Stratus,” however this is one version I can get behind with its unflinching sonic weight that fills all corners of the room, leaving no space for anything else bar the dense music. Sure, there is Princes guitar work in there, but for me the keyboards sit at the heart of the matter, with a heavy handed sense of drama that drags the music into murky waters.

It is “Cream” that has to follow this sonic tornado, and it is a light breeze in comparison. It is “U Got The Look” that brings a heavy crunch back into the show, as Prince excels at turning his guitar into a battering ramp, striking the audience again and again with heavy blows from his instrument. It is a short yet intense performance, and one that rings in my head for several minutes afterwards.

I want to like “Angel,” I really do. But in this case I can’t find it in me to like it. The vocals are good, the recording is fine, and the band play well. I guess I just have to face facts and say this type of music just isn’t me. Don’t let that discourage you, its a nice moment on the bootleg and there is plenty to enjoy if this is the type of thing you like.

The concert ends on a high with Prince giving a worthy rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” He is not the star of the moment though, the highlight comes with a typical Morris Hayes solo that carries a powerful undercurrent to the feeling Prince is singing about. It may not put an exclamation point on the concert, but it is a strong finish.

This is a great bootleg. The show is short yet punchy, and there are many songs here that shine brighter than they normally would in a longer show. I don’t always give credit to concerts from this point of Prince’s career, but this is one I can definitely recommend. There is a the aftershow from the same night on the bootleg, and I will cover that next week. If it’s even half as good as this, I am in for a real treat.

Thanks again
Hamish

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