Last week I finally overcame my mental and emotional block and took a listen to Prince’s final full live concert. I feel as if a great weight has been lifted, I now feel revitalized and ready to fully embrace the rest of this nights performance. Whereas the 10pm was emotionally heavy, the earlier show from that night promises to be a lighter experience, and something I can listen to without any emotional strings attached.
April 14th 2016 (show 1) Fox Theatre, Atlanta
The introduction music (“Confluence”) is a calm, serene way to begin the concert. What I notice is the sound of the ushers telling people to put their cell phones away – something I can appreciate as I recall the same experience when I saw the piano and microphone concerts in New Zealand. This introduction music is swept to one side as Prince takes the stage to the expected roar of the crowd. “Little Red Corvette” is a suitable opening number and the scene is set for what will unfold over the next 90 minutes. With “Dirty Mind” played mid song it lays the template for the evening, heartfelt ballads and stomping rhythmic piano songs alternating and demonstrating both sides of Prince’s piano talent. The one aspect of this performance that I find uplifting is the easy way Prince has with the crowd, the stage is his home and natural environment and that is apparent through the song as he is completely at ease as he teases and talks to the audience.
The following song, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, is coloured by some wonderful piano flourishes. The lyrics may be what everyone remembers, but in this case the piano carries the day. It’s easy to sing along, but a close listen to the piano is far more rewarding.
Prince is in fine form, he speaks of his Father before giving a one time only performance of “Chopsticks”. Its worth hearing for novelty value alone, but Prince adds a musicality to it which elevates it to something much more. Trust me, you have never heard a version of “Chopsticks” as funky as this.
Without the guitar solo, “Joy In Repetition” becomes something else altogether. The smokey opening of the song lingers throughout, without the payoff of the guitar break it stays in this sad melancholy mood, never breaking out of its foggy late night sound. I like it, I like it a lot. As much as I like the original, I find this arrangement grabs me tight round the heart and I am completely drawn into the web of music.
I am completely transported back to the ONA tour as “Muse 2 The Pharaoh” plays in my headphones. Nothing has changed in 15 years, and it is now just as it was then. The lyrics may not be to everyone’s taste (or anyones), but the music itself is fine and I am attracted to it. The fact that my head is nodding is a very good sign and once again Prince injects funk into it throw his playing. It comes as a pleasant surprise on the recording, but things about to get even better.
“U Got The Look” has Prince’s spoken “Here we are folks, the dream we all dream off” introduction, immediately it draws attention. Without the drive of the guitar it isn’t as forceful, Prince instead using to the spaces in the music to make it a slow and rhythmic hip swinger. It isn’t as 2-dimensional as the original sometimes is, and I applaud Prince for adding new dimensions to a familiar classic.
It is “Pop Life” that follows and it moves in the other direction. The pop is missing out of it and this performance sounds labored and heavy. The audience do their part singing along, but it lacks color and to my ears it is a weak moment in the concert. The redeeming feature is the piano that rolls across the soundscape like an early morning mist across the fields.
Prince continues to craft atmosphere in the arena, his piano sculpturing and shaping the music into a mood. “Elephants & Flowers” has a rugged charm, the vocals following the piano into an ethereal pop dream. Criminally short, Prince again channels an all enveloping warmth through his instrument.
The show becomes a more traditional as Prince takes on “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”. As the piano rises and falls Prince delivers an urgent vocal delivery, each line coming as a jab out of the darkness. The lyrical content is highlight by Prince an his piano flourishes, the keys weeping as the female protagonist tells her story, before becoming melancholy with Prince’s response of “I could never take the place of your man” It is a vivid demonstration of the power of music, and the ability to evoke emotion through both words and music.
“Under The Cherry Moon” is a delicate introduction to what is the heart of the concert. “A Case Of U” is played with a stark intimacy, Prince naked and vulnerable in this performance of one of his most endearing covers. The lyrics may be Joni Mitchell’s but the performance is pure Prince, the song climaxing with several raw shrieks that turn a love song into a jagged wound.
There is a familiar warmth to “I Feel For U”. Like oak paneling it is both warm and homely, without ever raising a level of excitement. As always it is more than welcome in the setlist, but as far as challenging the audience, it is about as threatening as wet spaghetti.
The following “Controversy” is equally familiar, but its energized in the skeletal form. The expected funk is generated purely by Prince and his piano, a more natural funk than what is heard in the full band performances later in his career. There is an extra buzz as he threatens to go off script and deliver the whole Lords prayer, the tension is palpable as he sings the first line, but he reins it in and ends the song. A shame as that would have sent the whole thing over the top.
There are limitations to “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”. Prince’s vocals are stressed and one feels its not coming to him as easy as it once did. His lower register is much more rewarding, for both him and the listener, and it is at this point the song becomes a vivid tribute to all those beautiful women in his life.
I dare you to listen to “I Would Die 4 U” without a huge smile on your face. A glorious pop song, after 30 years its time in the sun surely should have passed – yet it hasn’t and on this recording it sounds just as evangelical and uplifting as it ever has.
“Baby I’m A Star” draws energy from the same place and the crowd are soon whipped up into the frenzy that Prince’s concerts are renowned for. Without a full band it falls on Prince to provide the impetus and drive for the song, there is no doubt that he more than rises to the occasion. With a jolt of energy he plays a spirited and intoxicating rendition that sounds just as good on the bootleg as it does at the live show.
One vinyl David Bowie’s “Heroes” is a sonic storm that makes the ordinary extraordinary, small moments becoming heroic gestures as Bowie buildings everyday life into triumph of man. Prince’s cover, although well intention, is none of these things. Whereas Bowie had the metallic whine that spoke to the grimness of everyday life before reaching the life affirming chorus, Prince has piano flourishes and runs that come from a musicality rather than emotional space. David Bowie ends “Heroes” in near hysteria as he sings his vocals from the end of the world. Not once does Prince dig deep into this same emotion instead he gives the song a light touch, electing to highlight the joy of the piano as he replaces the intensity with a soulful performance that sounds as if its being played in a church. It is a beautiful moment, but it can’t come close to the raw-nerved performance of David Bowie.
After the briefest of breaks it is the line of “this will be the day” that draws the biggest cheer of the night. This opening is merely the entree, Prince pausing to let the crowd appreciate what is coming before he resumes. Each line shines brightly as they quickly fade, the song itself barely a minute as it ends with the crowd singing choir-like the final line, a fitting end as the concert is about to become a revival meeting as Prince brings out some of his finest material.
Prince knows he doesn’t have to try too hard with these final songs, the crowd isn’t here for the full architecturally sculptured renditions, they just want to know the song was plays and have a few lines to sing along with. The opening line of “Adore” is enough to send the crowd into raptures before they provide back up to Prince as he sings the first verse. With pause the song becomes “The Beautiful Ones”, the crowd still very much involved as Prince lingers on the lyrics. Listening at home is a frustrating experience as Prince swings back to Adore after a few lines, each song uniquely beautiful yet neither is satisfying as Prince cuts and pastes them into the show.
Much more nourishing is “Do Me, Baby”. The song is only a couple of minutes, but Prince plays a traditional arrangement with verses and chorus appearing as they should. It is short, but it there is much more to sink our teeth into compared to the previous songs and at this point the concert resumes a familiar format.
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” gets the same respectful treatment as “Do Me, Baby”. Although it too is short, Prince plays as one might expect with a spring in his step and a the crowd matching him word for word. The audience are a little too much in places on the recording, but it is a live concert and I can fully appreciate they are in the moment.
The final song of the evening is “Kiss”. For the audience it is one final flourish, although Prince’s piano playing is rather rather workman like, the audience provide the spark and enthusiasm that is missing from the piano. It is a surprising end to the performance, the show never reaches the expected climax and instead stops suddenly instead of going out with a bang.
I wanted to like this show a lot more than I actually did. The pieces seem to be in place for a great show, the songs are certainly there, and Prince sounded great early on. I found myself waiting for a big moment, a big moment that never came. By the time the end of the show arrived I realized that the best pieces of the concert had passed and I didn’t even notice them. It’s hard to be too critical of the Piano and Microphone concerts, I applaud Prince for doing something different, but in this case I found the abridged versions too light for my taste and left me hungry for more. No doubt this will get played plenty more as a companion piece to Prince’s final performance later that night, but as a concert I would choose to listen to, I’d probably pass.
Thanks for reading