It has been two years since I listened to a recording from the 1999 tour. I know this because I wrote a blog post last time I listened to a concert from that tour. So, with that in mind, it is well overdue for me to revisit the tour. I have written disparagingly of the tour, and subsequent bootlegs, previously. Not that the shows themselves are bad, but when compared to the wider selection of bootlegs available they lack some of the sparkle of other eras. The 1999 tour doesn’t have the naked intensity of the previous Controversy tour where Prince and the band are playing with the blazing fury of underdogs. Neither do the shows have the unpredictability and rotating setlists that Prince will rely on later in his career. What we have instead in a neatly packaged show that runs just over an hour, Prince choosing to present the 1999 album in the most efficient form, rather surprising given that it is a sprawling double album. There is no extended guitar solos, no songs thrown into the setlist, and no chance for something spontaneous to happen. Yet, the shows do have their own charm, and when I first started to collect bootlegs I listened to them often. The concert I have chosen to listen to today comes from early in the tour and is slightly more interesting for the unusual appearance of “Head” and “Uptown”. It is also one of the longer shows of the tour, so while not entirely representative of the 1999 tour, it does present an unique listen. It has been a while since I dipped this far back, and I am looking forward to listening with fresh ears and reliving my youth.
30th November, 1982. Masonic Temple Auditorium, Detroit
From the very moment that the spoken intro of “1999” begins I am swept up by the quality of the recording. The introduction is merely used for the beginning of “Controversy” and for the me the most thrilling aspect is the wonderfully crisp and clean scratchy guitar of Prince. The quality of the recording is astounding, after listening to so many audience recordings recently this really is bliss. The song is powered along by the rhythm guitar and the solid platform provided by the drums and bass, they really are rock solid. The lightness comes with the vocals of Prince and the women singing, it is a song of layered contrasts that simply works. It’s a great start to what promises to be an outstanding bootleg.
Things stay on the dance floor with “Let’s Work”. It isn’t as insistent as “Controversy”, but there is no denying the groove that it has and like the previous song it keeps the show moving briskly along. The synth squiggles provided by Dr Fink give it a lift and with the rest of the keyboards it floats much easier than “Controversy”. The brief guitar break by Prince reeks of his purple touch, and paired with another keyboard solo it lifts the song far beyond what is heard on album.
The hit of the moment comes with the synth rise and fall ushering in “Little Red Corvette”. I do enjoy this version, but to be honest it is played straight down the line and the difference between this live version and studio arrangement is barely perceivable. Sometimes a good song is a good song, and it doesn’t need anything extra to make it work in the live setting. That is exactly what we have here, and although there isn’t anything new it is still every bit as good as anything else in the concert.
“Do Me, Baby” has an innate richness to it, and that richness is emphasized with the long chocolaty introduction that Prince lavishes upon it. One can almost hear the sweat dripping off him as the opening music hangs, stretches and draws out, teasing the listener in the promises it holds. We talk of music being timeless, or classic, and never has it been more true than in this case. It has a smoothness and soulfulness to it that could have come from anytime, one can almost picture Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye singing the same song. The rest of the song lives up to all that it promised and the following minutes are some of the finest seduction balladry that Prince has ever performed.
From seduction we need move on to something much more nasty – “Head”. It isn’t quite the barn burner I expect, Prince underplays the song and although the required funk is there it doesn’t get the time it needs to properly marinade into something substantial. Four minutes of “Head” is good, ten or eleven minutes would be better. It does,however, finish on a high with yet another outstanding solo from Dr Fink.
The second surprise comes with an rousing rendition of “Uptown”. This lifts the energy levels of the recording immensely and takes us back to the previous Controversy tour when Prince and the band where playing as if that had something to prove. It is short and vibrant, but it does herald in the second part of the show where the following five songs are played over an hour – giving you some idea of how much more of a jam the latter part of the show will be.
Things start slowly with a relaxed rendition of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”. It has an easy sashay, and is in complete contrast to the previous “Uptown”. Prince’s piano playing is the centre of attention, but even better is how much the song spotlights his vocals. Naked out on their own, one can hear the not just the range of the vocals, but also the inflections and character he sings with. He is able to channel plenty of personality into his vocals and this carries the story just as much as the words he is singing.
The coolest song of the set is “Lady Cab Driver”. It is one of the key songs that attracted me to Prince, and this performance lives up to all my expectations. There is a driving groove that is sharpened by the rhythm guitar that brings it into sharp focus. Prince’s vocals sit in the background, it the the funk of the song that is important, and nothing gets in the way of that. Dez may provide one of his trademark rock solos, but the song is pure groove and continues on in its own way all the while he is playing. The second half of the song is sensational with Brown Mark coming to the fore with his bass warm and full, while the guitar continues with a chug – upping the intensity from the smooth first half into something that is forceful and demands attention. It is a firm pointer to the longer jams that Prince and the band will play in future, and couldn’t be further from the neatly packaged songs played earlier in the concert. I can’t emphasis enough, this is the strongest song of the set and I would happily pluck it out for any mix tape I was putting together.
“International Lover” is good, but I have an urge to return to “Lady Cab Driver” a few more times. It is played to the hilt as the seduction piece it is, although Prince does tend to go over board with the cheese in this case. I like the music, and the overall sound, but I can’t get past the nutty things Prince is saying. Tune out the words and it’s a masterpiece, with the words it is a giant piece of cringe worthy cheese. That would be fine if it was only a few minutes, but we we have here is ten minutes of Prince laying it on thick, almost (but not quite) ruining the moment.
The opening fanfare of “1999” washes away a lot of this and as soon as the vocals begin all is forgiven. After listening to so many abridged versions of late it is refreshing to hear a full unadulterated version, Prince playing it as it was meant to be heard. The synths have more time to fill out the sound with a dense curtain and there is plenty of vocals to be heard all over the track. They are easy to hear on the soundboard recording, and one can admire that every member contributes to the band and to the highest standard. The final minutes the song descends into a guitarfest that has my inner rocker all a flutter and by the final flurry and howl I am completely in my element.
It is “D.M.S.R.” that finishes the show, and what a way to finish. There has plenty of dance and funk on display already in the show and once again Prince and band deliver a platter of funky treats. The bass that moves the feet, the rhythm guitar cutting through, synth stabs that punctuate and accent the beat, and lyrics that you can’t help but sing along with (rather loudly in my case, I’m afraid). It is the synths and guitar that take control of the song and they drive it strongly though the final minutes as the music spiral ever upwards. This brings us to the end of the concert and it ends as it begun – with the spoken “I don’t want to hurt you, I only want to have some fun”, before the sound of an explosion puts an exclamation mark on it all.
I find my feelings on these types of shows are often the same. I say that the show doesn’t really appeal to me and is rather staid, then once I start listening I find the thrill and excitement sweeps through me and I am just as enamored by it all as I have always been. This bootleg can’t be, and shouldn’t be, compared to the long freewheeling shows of the 90’s and beyond. It doesn’t come close to the quiet intensity of an after show, yet this concert was just as enjoyable as anything else I have heard recently. This is the Prince that I first fell in love with all those years ago, and these concert reassert those feelings. A short and sweet concert that barrels quickly through the essential songs of the time, this is always going to be a bootleg we can return to again and again.
Thanks for reading,