3121 Las Vegas 1st night

I have for too long skimmed over the 3121 performances in Las Vegas. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that there is such an array of concerts and styles circulating from this period, it is hard to know where to begin. It doesn’t help that my catalog system for these shows is in disarray, mostly because some releases throw together a bunch of unconnected shows from this run, leaving my carefully laid dating system in ruins. Anyway, that is neither here nor there, what is important is today I will finally come back to these recordings, and what better place to begin than the first concert of the series.

There are several bootlegs of this concert in circulation, I have decided to listen to the 4daFunk release, purely because I find myself drawn to the art work. The Pure Funk release is more complete (it has the entire opening song) but I find I listen to this one much more. As for the concert itself, there is very little surprises to be found, it is a straight forward performance that lives little room for spontaneity or long improvised jams, instead Prince chooses to romp through his setlist in uninspiring rush. There are moments I cherish, but overall this is a standard show, and there is little to distinguish it from other shows at the time.

11th November (am) 2006  3121@Rio Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

The first minutes of “Spirituality” (Controversy) are missing, and although I have said the setlist is uninspiring, I do find this opening song coming at me in a breathless rush that raises hopes that this may deliver more than I remember. There may not be fire, but there is definitely a spark to this opening number.

The promise made by “Spirituality” comes good with “Johnny B. Goode”, Prince’s guitar bursting into flame at the appropriate moments, engulfing the recording in fierce fire that even a jaded guitar guy like myself can appreciate. It isn’t as freewheeling as we hear in aftershows, but it does get my pulse racing and Prince tears it up. Prince’s final shout of “Thank you, and good night” is entirely appropriate, as it does indeed sound like a final hit out before the close of a show.

I like the pop of “Lolita,” but I have found that as time has gone on it has lost its initial charm. The song is still young at this show, but ten years on it has reached middle age, and it has not aged well. It’s not helped by recording drop outs, and as much as I try to find something positive in the song, it does sound like Prince is on autopilot.

The following “Black Sweat” is also lifeless, something of a surprise for me as this is one song that usually delivers a defibrillator size jolt to concerts. In this case it is dead on arrival, and although the recording is very good at this point, the performance remains flat.

“So many hits, so little time,” sets alarm bells ringing for me and I am rewarded with a standard rendition of “Kiss.” This is Prince by the numbers, there is zero variation or inspiring moments, and the song remains insipid despite my hopes for something, anything, to happen. Still, a great song is a great song, and “Kiss” sounds fine on the recording, I enjoy it much more when I put aside my expectations and just go with the flow.

“Shhh” has the opening I want, but it isn’t anywhere near as powerful as I would like, and its not until the music pulls back that I find I can begin to enjoy it. Like the preceding “Kiss,” it is far more enjoyable when I put asides any preconceptions and just enjoy what I am hearing. In this case it is a cleanly recorded, cleanly played, rendition of a classic from his catalog. I may wish it to be an electrifying and muscular performance, but this is Prince playing it straight and the lean rendition we get is anorexic compared to the original. It is what it is, and in the car or playing in the background it would be great, but listening close with headphones it makes me wish for some of the other performances I have heard over the years.

“Musicology” suffers further in this flat performance, there is no guitar solo to inject passion or to shock the listener into an emotional response, and its light funk is lost in the easy mix and sound. I can’t quite put my finger on what is missing, but it never quite feels like the party that Prince wants it to be. There is an brief section in the middle where I think I may have misjudged it, but the second half droops again and leaves me feeling deflated.

I find that “Cream” is an easy listen, but there is nothing there to raise it above anything else heard in the evening. The band sound much stronger though, and I am beginning to warm to the gig again at this stage.

The guitar again cuts through this smooth funk, and heralds in the arrival of “U Got The Look.” It is by the numbers, the guitar may kick and start in Princes hands, but it never breaks free into the rampant guitar storm that I half hope for. The stomp keeps the concert moving however, and it does lead us tidily into the following moment.

It is pleasing to hear Prince take his time with “Joy In Repetition.” At first I feel I am immune to its charms, yet sure enough I am singing with Prince word for word as the song builds. It is the sort of song and performance that one can easily inhale, and exhale at your leisure. I dwell on the song as long as I can, reveling in its intoxicating and heady sound, and although it isn’t the first performance I would reach for, the song is still strong enough that it works its black magic on me despite its straight performance.

There is a low-key, percussive opening to “17 Days,” which to my ears doesn’t serve it well. There is further disappointment when I hear that it isn’t Prince on vocal duties, rather it is the Twinz that warble their way through the song. To add insult to injury, they butcher some of the lyrics, and to be honest I would rather not hear the song at all than hear it like this. “17 Days” in the setlist should have been the highlight, instead it is the nadir.

Things improve considerably with “7.” Prince pushes it out to twelve minutes, and in this time he gives himself space to speak to the crowd, ad-lib lyrics, and makes the song a much stronger statement than the previous moments. It’s not a bold statement, but it is music with a stronger backbone, and it finally feels like Prince is connecting with the music and the crowd. That is until the final minutes when he crosses the line into preaching. Several members in the audience can be heard complaining about it, and I am temporarily taken out of the moment by it.

A rocked up version “Anotherloverholenyohead,” oh yes, now we’re talking. For the first time I feel like letting out a whoop as I feel my body moving involuntarily to the music. The Twinz may be a touch too high in the mix for me, but there is plenty of grunt and muscle in Princes guitar that keeps me firmly focused. The climax comes with the predictable, but worthy, segue into an impassioned “Rock Lobster.” The guitar is enraged as it fury spews forth, a powerful anger that has me forgiving the previous hour. The guitar rages on after the music stops, briefly touching on “The Cross” before the band reengage for one final assault and drive to the finish.

A change of direction next, but a welcome one, as Prince eases into a groove laden “If I Your Girlfriend” As enjoyable as it is, there is still an undercurrent of funk that is missing. The band play with precision, but little of the soul I have come to expect, and as much as I find my head bobbing to the song, its not quite the knock out punch we have come to expect.

The radio friendly sheen of “Pink Cashmere” works surprisingly well at this moment, I sit enraptured as Prince works the lyrics and the crowd to his will. On the recording sides of things there is a loud snap that is, well, just too loud. It detracts from Mike Phillips solo, something that again raises the disappointment feeling within me as I always look forward to his contributions. I never recover from this feeling and even as the song stretches to ten minutes, I can’t recapture that feeling and warm glow from early on.

I am back on board for a compelling rendition of “Fury.” It comes and goes in a flash, but it does draw a line in the sand. For some reason the guitar driven songs at this concert seem to have a lot more energy to them than the funk jams, surprising given that Prince is normally so good at presenting both in an enthusiastic and impressive package. The final minute has a real bite to it, and I can only wonder how this concert could have played out if all the songs had have been played with such intensity.

It’s not necessary to have five minutes of audience noise between encores on the bootleg, but  4daFunk have put it there anyway, for the completists I guess. “Purple Rain” is entirely predictable at this point of the concert, and as you might expect it sounds just as it always has since 1984. I could almost sing the guitar solo note for note by now, and especially here as Prince adds not one bit of improvisation or unpredictability to his playing. He is going through the motions, and in this case it sounds as if he is just as tired of the song as some of the hard core fan community.

“Let’s Go Crazy” rounds out the concert in an upbeat finish. It’s joyless, and rather sums up the evenings performance. It all sounds very nice, but is shallow and leaves me wishing for something more substantial. It is very short, and whips the crowd up one last time before Prince calls for their love.

Ok, so I didn’t love this concert. On the plus side, it did sound good, and had a couple of my favourites in the setlist. What it was missing  was a sense of urgency. The songs meandered, even when they were short, and there was a lack of depth to the performance. I was hoping something of interest would be thrown up in the melee, but it was just a standard run through of his radio friendly hits. No doubt I will return to this recording in future, like I said earlier, it would be OK in the background, or in the car, but as for an intensive listening experience, I would happily pass on it. Like Prince says, all that glitters ain’t gold.

Thanks for joining me again,
I will have a rummage through the cupboards and see if I can pull out a treat for next week.
-Hamish

Rock In Rio II 1991

I started this blog with the expectation that I would be listening to a lot of bootlegs that I had never given attention to. That has been great so far, but now I have swung too far in that direction and there are some universally loved bootlegs that I never have time to listen to anymore. Last week I listened to one of the classic early bootlegs, Detroit 1982, and this week I will be taking a listen to one of Princes most famous video bootlegs in circulation – his performance at Rock In Rio 1991. 1991 is a very quiet year when it comes to live bootlegs. The Nude tour ended August of 1990 and until the beginning of the Diamonds and Pearls tour in April of 1992 there are only a dozen concerts played, leaving us with only a handful of bootlegs. This performance neatly bridges the two eras and although it is close to a Nude tour show, it does indicate the sound and style of The Diamonds And Pearl concerts that will come in the next year.

19th Januarary 1991 (a.m.), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The quality of the video is indisputable, it goes without saying that it looks glorious from the start. The most interest aspect of the video at the beginning is the performance of “Something Funky(In This House Comes)”. It was slated for release on Diamonds and Pearls, although it missed the final cut. One can hear how it might have fitted on there, the sound is close to several of the songs on the album, and it is led by Tony M who has the lead vocals throughout as he introduces the band. Prince cleverly uses it as an introduction to the crowd, both of the band and of the funk, before he makes an appearance in the final moments of the song.

The funk continues with a scratch guitar highlight for the first minute of “Let’s Go Crazy”. It initially sounds as if it could go either way between “Let’s Go Crazy” of “Controversy”, before the music settles on shiny “Let’s Go Crazy” that is anchored by a keyboard swirl and horn stabs. Even with Princes guitar asserting it’s authority, it is still the full sound of the band that keeps the song in this lighter pop realm. It is Michael B. who holds centre court here, his drum kit providing a solid pound that we will hear plenty more of through the 1990’s.

We have already heard “Something Funky(In This House Comes)”, and Prince introduces another song very much of the era with “Horny Pony”. It was recorded the same month as “Something Funky(In This House Comes)” so it comes as no surprise that it has the same sound and sheen to it. It is a good indicator of where Prince was at the time, but asides from that it doesn’t add much to the concert.

“Kiss” is a lot of fun, with Prince prancing and preening across the stage. This is rendition that has been heard plenty on the nude tour from six months previous, and anyone who has seen the Tokyo Dome performance would know what to expect. The music sounds good, but is the dancing that Prince really excels at in this show, and with his interaction with the Gameboyz there is a lot to hold the eye. I haven’t always championed the Gameboyz, here I find I get a lot out of there performance, perhaps it is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. They play with good humour, dancing to “The Peter Gunn Theme” and “The Pink Panther” which is a lot more enjoyable than it looks on paper.

It is a surprise to see “Purple Rain” early in the setlist, although to be honest I have written that plenty of times in this blog over the years, so perhaps it’s not that much of a surprise at all. It may be the guitar the opens the song, but the real treat is Rosie who seeds the opening minutes with sprinkles of piano that brighten the denser sound of the song. Prince too brings a brightness with his lead guitar along with his costume which one could only describe as ‘busy’. (In my head I can hear my father’s voice – “He’s wearing curtains”). The song lacks the gravitas of other performances, but Prince speaks of the Iraq war in the final moments and this changes the tone of the song immensely. With a chant of “Love 4 Love” opening the door on the final solo, Prince is dropping clues about what the future holds for him musically.

The performance of “Bambi” introduces some grittiness into the show, and for the first time on the recording one can feel some bite and aggression in the music. Even tempered by the keyboards and full band, Prince is still out front cutting a swath through the music with his razor sharp guitar riffs. It’s short, but definitely a highlight.

Prince continues dipping into his bag of past glories with a rousing rendition of “Take Me With U” that has both the stadium and the recording bouncing. The video seems rather limited on available shots at this point, and for the first part of the song we alternate between only 3 camera angles. The second half is much better and the editing matches the pace of the song, giving it an impetus that was missing earlier.

“Shake” keeps with the energetic upbeat theme of the concert so far, and although I have never been a great fan of it on record, in this case I find myself happily singing along. Rosie in particular stands out with her impressively solid voice making even Michael B’s drums sound weak in comparison. “Shake” becomes an extended jam as Prince works the crowd through clapping and singing for a few minutes. As is my way, I lose interest at this point, but I can’t deny it is an integral part of the concert experience.

Rosie is the centre of attention for the next song “Dr Feelgood” as Prince leaves the stage for one of his inevitable costume changes. I was an enthusiastic supporter of hers in “Shake”, but I don’t have the same feeling for “Dr Feelgood” which to my ears is overworked and laborious. Yes, Rosie’s vocals are as powerful as ever, but the song stays firmly grounded and leaden despite her best efforts. A shame because I do love Rosie.

Everything changes when Prince returns to the stage and presents an angelic “Venus De Milo”. It doesn’t last too long, but it is a nice segue into “The Question Of U”, also played solo by Prince at the piano. As an instrumental, it spotlights Prince’s prowess with the piano, it hardly matters that the guitar doesn’t make an appearance, this version is just as good as the arrangement on other tours.

“Ain’t No Way” sung by Rosie Gaines would be a sensational song in a small venue, however the concert again sags as she sings it in this situation. Her voice is magnificent, it certainly fills the stadium, but the song has no drive to it and the energy of her voice performance seems to be swallowed up by the stadium. If I close my eyes and picture a club, its great, when I see it at this concert it becomes a weak moment.

There is several highlights in “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Princes vocals are pitch perfect, and his performance is one to watch as he screeches and croons atop his piano. It is a real surprise that Rosie doesn’t sing with him, but asides from that it is a great performance that I could happily watch again and again.

Prince and the band rush headlong into the final furlong with the effervescent “Baby I’m A Star”.  The visuals match the frantic pace, although at times the quick editing of the video is dizzying and headache inducing. As the song disappears beneath the chants and dancing the band show their chops as the keep pace with Prince and his commands. I can’t fault the music, but I do find that Prince is over the top with his performance and for me this devalues the music. Balance is restored as he takes to the piano and the Rosie belts at a passionate “Respect”. That soon becomes Sonny playing a solo on the bass, and for me this is the best part of these final 30 minutes. Tony M too has time to shine with a rendition of “Brother With A Purpose”. I normally wouldn’t mention it, but Prince tags “We Can Funk” onto the end of it and this is every bit as good as you could imagine. Its only a minute, but it banishes the previous minute of Tony M rapping from memory.

“Thieves In The Temple” promises so much with Prince playing solo on the piano for the first minute, but the rest of the song becomes a rush through the music as the band sacrifice the depth of the song for an uptempo beat and 90’s sheen. The final ten minutes of the concert are given over to the “Baby I’m A Star” beat as Prince works the crowd, firstly with call and response, then with dancers on stage. It is even worse than it sounds as “Jughead” gets an airing at this point. I am not the least bit negative about the band or the music, both are of the highest order, but as far as listening to a bootleg at home this part of the show leaves me cold. Even the final flurry of “Baby I’m A Star” can’t restore my enthusiasm and rather than finishing on a high I am left with the feeling of relief that it’s over.

This show hasn’t aged as well as others in my collection. It used to be on high rotation at my place when I was younger, but seeing it again now I realize the at the show itself is incredibly patchy. There are certainly some great moments that match anything else in Prince’s catalog, but they are more than offset by some clunky moments, less than stellar songs, and a show that is high on camp and low on emotional depth. The fact that it was one of the few proshot shows circulating at the time has given it more credibility than perhaps it deserves. An interesting show, with some high points, but not essential. Next time I watch it there will be plenty I will be skipping through.

See you next week
Hamish