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