The Church, Denver 1997 am

The Prince of 1997 is not the Prince that I grew up with. At this time a lot of the magic and excitement of being a Prince fan had dissipated for me. There is no doubting that Prince was still playing as well as ever, but for me the songs, the very heart of the matter, were missing. Aftershows still retained some thrill, a measure of excitement provided by guest appearances and cover versions. The gig I am listening to today has both and is all the better for it. The guest is Chaka Khan, both vocally and playing drums(!) and the setlist is chock full of cover versions, only the odd Prince song breaking up the run. It is an audience recording, and a scratchy one at that, but there is no distortion which about all I ask for out of a recording nowadays.

6th October 1997(am), The Church,Denver

Ignore the opening introduction as the announcer tries to flog off some t-shirts to the crowd, the real fun begins immediately as Chaka Khan emerges from the crackle of the recording playing the drums through the opening “Instrumental.” It isn’t a song that kicks sand in your face and laughs, with a kindlier gentler sound it is a gentle stroll into the show rather than an aggressive rampage. I would love to see footage of this moment, and this audio recording is a poor representation of what must have been a cool introduction.

It is Marva King who provides the entertainment for the next number, with a deep rendition of “Playtime.” Marva brings plenty of firepower to the performance, and she is ably matched by some equally insistent horn lines, and a dark organ swirl. The thin recording doesn’t do the song justice and it is up to the listener to fill out the sound in their mind. However, it does sound like a stonking version and we can only listen in envy of those that were there.

I’m not so fussed by “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” It’s not this perfoamce that I have a problem with, its just that I have heard it so many times from Prince and this rendition doesn’t add anything new that I haven’t heard before. Coupled with the quality of the recording,  it becomes a flat spot on the bootleg. Prince can be heard defiantly working his guitar and to his credit it does sound like it’s building to something, but we never get to fully appreciate the fruit of his labors as the recording saps the energy from his performance.

I am far more interested in “777-9311” and “Ain’t No Fun To Me” that come next. It is the bass line of “777-9311” the serves as the introduction, before “Ain’t No Fun To Me” comes snapping hard on its heels. It is only short, but Prince manages to evoke the spirit of the song with his impassioned delivery and the heavy wheeze of the organ that anchors the song. There is one point of the song where an audience member can be heard saying “He’s a genius, man, a genius!” and sitting here at home 20 years later, I am inclined to agree with him.

There is a “Colorado” chant that carries the first minutes of “Days Of Wild” before its crushing groove arrives proper and suffocates the recording with its thick funk. Even the thin recording is no match for “Days Of Wild,” it is just as wild as always, and even if it doesn’t stretch out for days it still sprawls itself across the recording for seven unequaled minutes. This wildness is personified by the hectic Tony Morris saxophone solo that bursts into flame in the final minutes of the song, making for a fitting end to what is a highlight on the recording.

Tony Morris is again present for the following Chaka Khan “Tell Me Something Good,” sung by the legendary Chaka herself. My feelings are mixed, I love the song and the performance, but I find the quality of the recording to be intrusive and several times I am taken out of the moment. However, it is a fantastic song and on a soundboard recording I would be positively raving about it.

The show has a warmth to it as Marva King displays her considerable chops on a cover of the Staples Singers “I’ll Take You There.” Even though Prince is barely noticeable, he doesn’t sing and there is no blinding guitar break, the song still has its place in the setlist, with its nostalgic charm and warm glow. This isn’t the first song I gravitated towards in the setlist, but I find it just as rewarding as anything else played.

“I Got The Feelin” is a cover of a James Brown song, but it lacks the drive and power that we would normally expect from a James Brown cover. The horns can be heard with their vigorous turn around’s, and after hearing them I can say that again it is the recording that is sucking the life from the song. There is no doubt that the band is playing an authoritative rendition, and their hard work is only undone by the shallow recording.

Prince goes even further back for a cover of “The Way You Do The Things You Do” This has me re-enthused for the bootleg, mostly because this is one of my favorite songs, and I am immediately transported away as Prince and the band play the song with plenty of sunshine and energy. It’s only a few minutes, but they cram a lot into the song, with the organ, the vocals, and the horns all vying for attention.

Prince goes even further back in time for an even bigger surprise – a short, sharp rendition of “Shout.” Forget the quality of the recording for a minute, if this doesn’t bring a smile to your face, then I don’t know what will. It has the crowd engrossed, and it’s easy to see why with its upbeat call and response and the undercurrent of swirling energy that never quite settles.

Ignore the next minutes as the announcer again reminds the crowd to buy T-shirts. The music returns with a slow building jam built around a lone drum sound provided by Chaka Khan. It doesn’t do much, it stays low and never gains any real intensity or intent, but it does pave the way for the next few songs.

The band is running at full power for an energized performance of “(Eye Like) Funky Music.” One of the few Prince songs to be played at this show, it gains even more respect in my book by being a song that was very rarely played live. Hearing it here, it sounds fresh and bright to my ears, and the chanting of the chorus is fun even if it is me alone a home. This is not a song I would play someone to demonstrate the genius of Prince, but as a fun song to hear on a bootleg it is right on the money.

We have another call and response jam next with “Denver Rock The Party”. As a horn lead instrumental it has the temperature rising on the recording, and this is made even better with Princes guitar break that he bestows upon it. It never blows out to a guitar jam though, and it is the horns and chanting that make up most of the song. I would like to say more about the guitar, but it is a little low in the mix, no doubt at the show itself it was louder, stronger, and altogether better.

There comes a slow down with the steady swagger of “Johnny” filling the air with its roguish grin. The lyrics make me smile, a smile made even bigger as Prince tells the audience that he and Chaka had said a prayer before the show, a prayer that the show would be funky. Well, that prayer has been answered, and the show is funky throughout, even if the recording can’t match the concert. “Johnny” maybe slower, but it is just as funky as anything else played, and is another highlight as the music curls and bends around the listener.

“I’m A Woman (I’m A Backbone) is a song with purpose and direction. It may be Chaka’s name and vocals that give the song early impetus, but later it is the saxophone of Tony Morris that drives the song into the ground. The saxophone stabs the carcass of the song with incisive cuts and wild slashes, leaving the music twitching and foaming with every attack, making for a wild and unhinged performance that tears though the skin of soft funk that has so far covered most of the evening.

I have often thought, and indeed written, that Prince and Hendrix aren’t the great mix that many imagine. The performance of “Little Wing” at this concert has me not just eating my words, but positively choking on them, the lump in my throat palpable from the opening seconds as Prince serves up a delicious treat of chords stacked on top of each other. It’s not just about Prince though, Chaka and the saxophone of Tony Morris bring their own flavours and tastes to the song, making for a balanced and well rounded dish.  Chaka is out in front, while Tony garnishes her performance with soft touches and a drizzle of sax as required. Prince displays another side of his playing, while known for playing the type of solos that would raze a forest, here his playing scatters seedlings that bloom and grow into a varied fruit as the song progresses. It is a thoughtful performance, with a trace of wistfulness that is never quite resolved. The song isn’t perfect though, the recording is too poor for that, and as effusive as I have been so far I must admit it is a song that requires close listening as for the most part it is distant and exists on the fringe of listenable.

Putting aside the sound quality for a second, this performance is a 10/10. I don’t say that lightly. The setlist gives no hint to how great the actual performance is, and having Chaka on board makes for a real treat. The songs swallow the room in there immersive brooding, punctuated by the electric fury of the guitar or the relentlessly vivid saxophone. Unfortunately, the bootleg is not a 10/10, the sound is too poor, and it took a close listen on headphones to really unearth the treasures buried in this release. For die hard fans this is another must listen, casual fans I would say approach with caution.

Thanks for joining me,
see you next week
-Hamish