Liberation (1996)

I have been continually surprised by how much I enjoy concerts from 1996/1997. At the time I wasn’t taken by them, but twenty years later I find that I have finally matured and caught up with Prince. The shows are an odd mix, Prince is aiming at the pop audience, yet the music and performance lacks the sparkle of his younger years. However, to my more mature ears there is plenty to keep me entertained. This week’s bootlegs covers an aftershow recorded in Chicago after Prince’s performance on Oprah. It doesn’t quite fit the classic aftershow mould and is more or less a run through of the Love 4 One Another tour setlist. It is a crowd-pleaser though, and Prince offers a couple of diversions that keeps the crowd well and truly involved with some loose renditions later in the show.  Despite being an audience recording, with all the baggage that comes with that,  I look forward to hearing this again and discovering something new.

21st November 1996 (am), Park West, Chicago

There is no denying, the recording gets off to a rough start. I have no issue at all with the music, “Jam Of The Year” opens with a long instrumental featuring some taunt guitar work that makes it all the more appealing. However, the recording is rough for the first few minutes, crowd noise overwhelming the music in places. Listening past that though and things aren’t so bad, this opening number having some cool keyboard work as Prince sings his lines to a highly charged and appreciative audience. “Jam Of The Year” doesn’t quite live up to its title though and I am already looking forward to what comes next in the setlist.

Doing a quick calculation, I have heard “Purple Rain” four or five times a week for the last twenty years, factoring when I listened to the album on heavy rotation from 1984-1994 when Prince was THE MAN, and Purple Rain was THE ALBUM, I estimate I have heard the song approximately 16,000 times. And yet I find I still enjoy it. The version on this recording is surprising for several reason,. Firstly, it appears very early in the setlist, where traditionally it comes later in the show. Secondly, it is a late night/early morning show, where the big songs don’t normally get an airing. And finally, this is a loose version, featuring a veil of intricate guitar work from Prince. The main solo pulls back as Prince begins to gently weave his way through the song before returning to the verse, almost rebooting the song at this point. It keeps me guessing, and even if I have heard the song 16,000 times before I still finish with a smile on face.

I am pulled straight back into the summer of 1996 with “Get Your Groove On.” Listening to it today I can almost feel myself in the car, windows down, music on, and the feeling of sun on my skin. Prince imbues the music with a sunshine feel that seeps through the song at every opportunity, and for my money this is a better representation of Emancipation than the earlier “Jam Of The Year.’ It certainly helps that a lot of the earlier sound problems have dissipated, and even though the crowd is loud and vocal, it adds to the sense being there, rather than detracting from the music itself.

Prince doesn’t dwell on “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” drawing it in after a minute to instead deliver a hard hitting “The Ride,” something that seems to go over very well with the Chicago crowd. I am with them on this one as the music churns and chews through the next ten minutes. At times the music is so low it almost disappears into the floor, and that is no bad thing at all as Prince lays down his blues sound in blues town.From this swampy festering sound, Prince’s guitar rises loud and proud, a flaming sword in the darkness of the music, a light to gravitate to. Its a great moment, but not the finest moment of the song, that comes later and Prince teases and taunts the audience with his talk, made all the better by the audience yelling encouragement – “Come on Boy,” “Alright now!”. In these moments I am right there in the audience, just the reason I listen to bootlegs.

There is a guttural grunt and snort to the guitar sound at the beginning of “The Cross,” a raw sound that transports me back to when I was a young punk. Prince keeps his guitar set to “Garage Band” as he plays a mighty rendition that comes from the gut. It may not be the cleanest sounding recording in circulation, but Prince more than makes up for it in raw, unadulterated power and force of will. Even twenty years later listening to a scratchy bootleg at home, it is easy to be swept up by the fervor of it all, and by the end of the song I too am desperately close to whooping and hollering with the rest of the crowd. The response to the end of the song is overwhelming, it is obvious that I’m not the only one deeply affected by the performance.

Prince may have declared “Prince is dead” a year earlier, but here he is full resurrected and digs deep into his back catalog for a performance of “Do Me, Baby,” a performance that sounds as if the song had only been written the day previous as Prince plays it with unbridled emotion and feeling. Again, the crowd are right with you as the song plays, it may be too much for some but I do get a buzz hearing the audience screaming their appreciation, even if they do swamp the music at times. Prince unleashes an exquisite scream that has the crowd baying for more, and who can blame them when Prince is sounding this sexy. With lyrics thrown in from “Scandalous”, “Adore”, “Insatiable”, and “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”, it becomes a tour de force of Prince’s most seductive songs, no bad thing at this stage of the concert.

The following “Sexy M.F.” is most welcome, with its horn refrain it brings a fresh sound to the concert. However, the verses can’t quite live up to this, and the recording does Prince no favors. While the horns are recorded well, Prince himself sounds a touch fuzzy, and the slippery guitars underneath are mostly lost to my ears. A song that promises much, in this case the bootleg just can’t do it justice.

When I was fifteen, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” sounded like the most important song in the world. Thirty years later, and as much as I try, listening to it here I can’t recapture that feeling. The weight of the song has gone, and now when I listen all I can hear is the easy groove the the song rolls across. Getting older is a bitch. However, as a live bootleg experience it is perfectly serviceable, and when I take my personal feelings out of the equation, I find it an easy going three or four minutes.

Prince’s spiritual side again comes to the fore with his intense cover of Joan Osbourne’s “One Of Us.” One can see the attraction, and with the snare sound anchoring the beat it fits in well with Prince’s oeuvre. It could do with a better quality recording, but Princes playing is forceful enough that it overcomes most sonic limitations. It’s not quite the key song of the evening, but it is a good pointer to where Prince was at this time.

The encore begins with “Sleep Around” from the Emancipation album. It may not be the best sounding song on the bootleg, but it is good enough that I feel I should pull out the original album and give it a listen, which I guess is the point of these concerts; to promote the album of the time. The Emancipation  songs may be firmly fixed in the mid-Nineties by their sound and style, but they still have their own spirit and for me nicely capture the zeitgeist of that time. The bootleg itself is a passable listening experience without ever blossoming into something essential.

This is followed by the final song of the evening as Prince segues “A Train” into an all encompassing jam. There is some bass work, that judging by the screams is the man himself, and the crowd are fantastically vocal with their “play that funky bass”  encouragement. This jam is the highlight of the show for me, the thumping bass (or should I say thumbing bass) is glorious in its chest thumping vibration. Princes chant of “C, H, I, love you” is pretty cool, and coupled with the contributions from the other band members it is a fitting end to what has been a lot of fun.

The first five minutes give a false impression, and after a bumpy start the concert settles into something very cool indeed. Putting aside any recording issues, I found that even though it wasn’t an aftershow in the true sense (the setlist being pretty much a condensed mainshow) , the interaction between the band and audience made it feel like one, and especially so in the final couple of songs. Of the concerts of this era there are certainly better ones, but this is the one I have enjoyed most so far. One to avoid if you an audio purist, but for anyone who likes plenty of passion and crowd interplay this is pretty darn good.

Thanks for reading, until next time take care
-Hamish

Cabaret Metro

This week I am digging back to a recording that I used to listen to a lot, but haven’t heard for a few years now, the show from the Cabaret Metro Chicago in 2000. It is worth the listen as Prince and the NPG play a show with the aid of a couple of guests’ appearances, namely Macy Gray and Common. The show starts with very little Prince, initially it is Macy Gray and her band playing before Prince slowly eases his way into things. By the end of the show however, he is fully engaged and playing just as hot as ever. It should be good to revisit this old friend, hopefully it lives up to my memories.

17th November (am) Cabaret Metro, Chicago

The show starts with Macy Gray and her band playing without Prince. Common is on the mic free-styling as the band run through a jam that includes Voodoo Chile (slight return), Sexy M.F. and D.M.S.R. Considering Prince isn’t anywhere to be heard, its surprisingly enjoyable and something I could easily listen to again. Of course without Prince and the NPG playing it does lack intensity, it meanders easy in it’s on way without ever being taxing to listen to.

Things finally start on the Prince front as Macy sings a sweet sounding Forever In My Life. I find her voice to be a good match to the song, and for the first few minutes she makes the song her own. She’s unrushed, and sings in a style that is unmistakably hers while the band quietly bubble along behind her.  A happy cheer greets Prince as he arrives mid-song to sing his lines, and he promptly reclaims the show. As good as Macy Gray sounded, there is nothing quite like hearing Prince sing it, and when he sings his lines there is no mistaking whose song it is.

The show moves up a notch with The Bird. It’s not immediately recognizable, but there is an increase in tempo and beat that signals something more funky is coming our way. With Common and Macy hyping the crowd the wave builds with the bass and organ adding momentum. That wave never crashes, and the band keeps on grooving, with the bass being the tracks that everything runs on, it sounds great on the recording and has me reaching to turn it up. I am underselling it a little, it is a fantastic jam.

With a funky guitar and a steady beat another jam starts, this time more downbeat and easy. There are also the contrasting sounds of some bright sounding horns, some squealing guitar and the shine of the organ. It all comes together in a mix of sounds and colours that keeps things moving, and I am very surprised as it ends in a sudden stop after only a few minutes.

prince-2000

Prince next tells us that Macy will sing a country song, so while the band plays a country sounding beat she sings for a minute “baby, baby, baby”. There’s nothing to it, it is barely a minute long, but it does show the easy nature of the show, and as Prince and Macy talk it’s obvious they are just hanging out and having fun.

The show settles as Macy sings her own I Try and it’s on her own song that she really shines. The band provide a strong skeleton for her to sing over, and as she sings it easy to feel the warmth in her voice. I am so lost in the moment that it ends before I realize it, and a moment of horns carry us through to some heavenly guitar from Prince, playing in his clean sound as he solos around No Woman, No Cry. I thought Macy Gray was good, but this is even better, and takes the show to another level altogether. He doesn’t play fast, or make it scream, his carefully chosen notes carrying all the expression and emotion he needs. As the music rocks back and forth Macy sings lines from a few Prince songs (Take Me With U, Anotherloverholenyohead, Adore) but its Prince’s guitar that holds my attention, injecting beauty and heart as it plays. As Macy sings Take Me With U the music increases in intensity and with the guitar still playing we reach new heights in the song, and if not for some distortion on the recording it would be an unforgettable moment.

With Prince on guitar and playing so well, it’s only fitting that the next song should be The Ride. It not as dark as sometimes heard, the groove is lighter, as is Prince playing. After an initial bluesy run he swirls for a time, before returning to the bluesy tone. From here on Najee plays his sax for a time, bringing in a different sound to a song so familiar. Najee doesn’t get a lot of love from Prince fans, but he does a fair job and it is fun to hear him bringing something different to a song I have heard so often. Prince finally sings some lines, before he cuts loose with the guitar in the final minutes, really making it sing. Just as expressive as his singing voice, it more than lives up to the previous song, and Prince is bringing all his guitar skills out for the final part of this show.

With a quick drum rattle Prince turns everything up to ten for his final Santana medley that will close the show. As always he is on top of his game, but still provides plenty of space for the keyboards to fill out the song. There is some distortion, mostly from one of the keyboards, but for the most part it’s a clean recording, and Princes guitar sounds clean and strong all the way. The band chase each other round in a circle of riffs, as the intensity rises and falls. Again Najee gets a chance to contribute, his sound unusual for the Santana medley, yet I enjoy every moment of it. Despite being a band performance, it is Princes final guitar solo that leaves the lasting impression, as he duels Najee blow for blow before laying the matter to rest with a scorching run that can’t be matched. I am surprised (although I shouldn’t be) by how good they sound playing off each other, and although this is far from my favourite band, they turn on a great performance that ends the show in style.

The recording is very short, and the songs only a few, yet it was the jams and the guest appearances that made this recording an interesting listening. Hearing Prince interact with Macy Gray and Common was a different perspective, and with them putting their twist on his songs it added something interesting and new to the show. Najee too contributed late in the show, and his sound with Prince worked well, something I hadn’t considered for an aftershow. All in all, a short but sweet aftershow and there was something for everyone in it. Far from a classic, yet worth a listen.

Thanks for reading
Hamish

 

Chicago aftershow 1996

Today’s show is a plan B for me. I was intending to write about another show that someone spoke highly of online, but when I started to listen to it, I found that it was very similar to another show that I had written about a couple of months ago. This aftershow from 1996 has been on my radar for some time, but I have never quite got around to listening to it. It sounds interesting from what I have previously read, the big downside being that it is a low quality audience recording. Not to be deterred, I decided that it was just too intriguing and I had to give it a listen.

21 November 1996, Chicago

Rather aptly the show opens with Jam Of The Year. I am going to lay my cards on the table right from the start – I rather like the Emancipation album. Despite its plastic production values, the songs are still there, and there are plenty of them. This rendition of Jam Of The Year is quite interesting, the first couple of minutes it’s only instrumental, and has a good groove to it that bounces along nicely. I am not going to carp on about the audience noise through the recording, but be aware, this recording has plenty of crowd noise, and there are plenty of times when Prince and the band sound secondary. The guitar plays a nice figure, and there is a loud cheer when Prince rather obviously appears at the two minute mark. However, his appearance doesn’t move the song along at first, and the groove continues for another minute with plenty of cheers before he begins to sing. The bass line is well worth the effort to listen to, it’s tight and has a good bounce to it. The song ends after five minutes, it could have easily been stretched out much longer.

Prince 1996

Is that the opening chords of Purple Rain I hear? It is indeed, and the crowd noise increases several decibels. There is long piano intro while Prince speaks directly to the crowd, several times referencing emancipation (the word, not the album). Some might find the crowd noise off putting, but it does give it an intimate feel, and there is a sense of togetherness that the recording seems to capture. Prince pulls into his guitar break, and there is that sense of release that I often feel as he throws his head back and begins to play. It’s a shame therefore that the recording is thin at this point and the guitar sounds weaker than I would like. I know it’s the recording rather than Prince, and things get better as he slows it down and plays a more relaxed solo, the likes of which I hadn’t heard before. Any doubts I had about the recording fade at this stage, the quality of the show easily surpasses the quality of the recording. There is a further surprise, as the crowd begins to sing “ooww, owww, oowww” Prince starts to sing the first verse again. His guitar plays along, and I find it to be a touching moment. He is still finding emotion in a song that I thought had been emotionally wrung out. Again he plays into the beloved solo, and this time he pushes on with it and keeps his guitar wailing. There is the final reprise of “ooowww owwww oowwww” and my girlfriend is now looking at me oddly as I wave my arms from side to side.

We are swept up into the here and now as a rather plastic sounding Get Yo Groove On starts. This song is too smooth for it’s own good, and it’s easy to dismiss it as something that Prince could do in his sleep. But listening to it carefully now I can see that it’s well crafted, and Prince is making it look all too easy. There is nothing wrong with a smooth, well crafted pop song, and that is what this is. The first half of the song is a bit of fun, and it’s only as it goes on do I find it’s a little devoid on fresh ideas in the second half. However there is a brief guitar break by Prince that shakes things along. I do like it when the band throws Six into the mix, I really hadn’t expected to hear that at a Nineties show. The song finishes and part of me regrets praising it earlier on, there wasn’t as much there as I had initially thought.

The Most Beautiful Girl In The World has a joyful opening, and it’s not hard to get caught in its charming web. Prince begins to talk to the crowd, and then sudden stops it’s without singing. It’s disappointing, and I briefly frown, that is until I hear the next song begin.

Prince 1996a

The Ride is classic mid-nineties Prince. Prince seems to relish it, and he wallows in the down and dirty groove with some dark guitar licks, and his laid back vocal delivery. The guitar comes to the fore a couple of minutes in, and it’s worth the wait. It’s a slow burning solo, and it certainly does have some intensity to it. Its stronger sounding than some of the other solos I have heard on The Ride, and I wonder if he is using a different guitar setup. As the solo progresses it takes on a voodoo sound, and I find myself listening very carefully to it. Prince name checks some of the people at the show “Mavis Staples is in the house, R Kelly is in the house, Oprah Winfrey is in the house” Each name elicits a louder cheer from the crowd, and things become louder as Prince encourages the crowd to wave the wild sign, before playing with the crowd some more. The band then plays real low and Prince plays some dark licks on his guitar. There is not much more to say about this part, except that it is my favourite part of the song. This does go for some minutes before Prince closes it to a loud cheer from the crowd.

Spirits are uplifted as Prince plays a loud, guitar heavy sounding The Cross. The drums are down in the mix, and the crowd claps along. The most striking thing in the opening minutes is the heavy chug of Princes guitar. However this eases back in the next verse and the drums and keyboards come to the fore as the song progresses. Prince begins his solo, and the balance is restored. I have no complaints about the solo at all, apart from the fact that I would love to see it as well as hear it. The song is surprisingly short, and a horn sound suddenly appears in the mix near the end, I guess from Morris Hayes keyboard. One final crescendo and we finally get a rest as the band stops between songs.

Do Me Baby is one of those songs that I find myself writing about week after week. That and Purple Rain seem to be in every show, and I can’t deny it’s well worth the inclusion, I would be terribly disappointed if I went to a show and didn’t hear Do Me Baby. Prince takes his time before singing this one, but it’s not a gentle build up as we have heard previously, at this shows there is plenty of intensity and screams from the crowd. I love it as Prince begins to sing as some women yell encouragement to him from the crowd. This one is squarely aimed at the women in the audience, and Prince’s scream gets an equally loud scream back at him. This continues as he begins to sing lines from Adore, and then Insatiable. Each song gets a couple of lines, and he also throws Scandalous and How Come U Don’t Call Me anymore into the mix just for good measure.  The squeals of delight settle down and Prince resumes singing Do Me Baby. The song ends on a high with some more shrieks from Prince and a simple “Do me baby, do me baby”

Prince 1996b

We go from his slow jams straight into some funk as the band strikes up Sexy MF. Prince’s rap on this doesn’t always do it for me, but I do enjoy that groove. The band swing on it as the song goes along, and Morris Hayes adds his touch which changes the direction of the song. Apart from the first minute, most of the song is instrumental, with several changes. I find it to be disjointed and off putting, and there is a part of me that is secretly pleased as it ends.

The bounce of If I Was Your Girlfriend begins and I am all in.  There does seem to be something missing in the song, I can’t pin point exactly what it is, so I’m just going to blame the recording. The bass isn’t as prominent as I like, and some of the other instruments I can’t hear very well. The crowd certainly like it, and it’s one of those occasions where I think that perhaps I should invest in a time machine. Prince again tells the crowd that “Freedom is a beautiful thing” as the song comes to a rather unsatisfying ending.

One Of Us surprised me when I first heard Prince cover it, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense as a song Prince would cover. The lyrics are a good fit to his spiritual side, and the steady beat gives him room to put his stamp and guitar sound over it. This isn’t the best example of the song, Princes vocals aren’t recorded well, in fact nothing really is except his guitar. There is the feeling that I am just tolerating the song between guitar breaks, which really isn’t fair. His second break is when things become interesting, it’s not too long though and he is soon singing again. There is another guitar break that carries us to the end, I find it hard to get too excited about it, it’s good without being great.

I am no great fan of Sleep Around. The song sounds busy, and yet it fails to grab me. Even listening carefully here I don’t find anything to latch onto. I have heard it plenty, its fine to listen to when I am doing other things, it’s just when I give it all my attention I find it lacking. The performance here is good, and in the wider context it’s a good fit. The song eases off later and Prince thanks the crowd. This part I like much more, it’s a more basic sound, and I can feel the groove better. There is a nice rhythm guitar sound, I have to listen carefully but it is there. And as soon as I write those words it comes to the fore and gets a minute to shine – Prince is laughing at my expense. There is a segue into Take The A-train and Prince uses this to finish up the song and move us into a Chicago Jam.

Some cool bass play gets this Chicago Jam hopping, and there are a few occasions in the song when it is right out front. This is the last song of the show and Prince takes the opportunity to play with the crowd and get them chanting along. It’s a characteristic Prince type jam, and Morris Hayes in particular gets plenty of time to play. The song has an easy groove to it, it never becomes intense and I bob along easily to it at home as Prince has the crowd chanting “C..H..I love you” The song ends with a horn flurry courtesy of Morris Hayes and his keyboard and the show ends appropriately with the sound of the crowd.

There is plenty to dislike about this show, and yet I find myself really liking it. Sure, the recording was less than ideal, and I didn’t warm to every song played. But the parts that I liked, I really liked. The rendition of Purple Rain was an oddity and something worth hearing, as was The Ride. It’s a nice document of this time period, and something I should probably give more listens to.

Thanks for reading
Hamish