PRINCE | 04.08.02 | NEW YORK

On Monday, I was offered a ticket to the Avery Fisher Hall gig. It was $105 but it's Prince, and the man's an undisputed legend. "Purple Rain" was huge for me in the mid '80s but I fell out of paying attention to anything that I even considered nearing pop music so I'm not familiar with Prince's post-PR material except for stuff like "Raspberry Beret" and "Diamonds & Pearls." Still, I'm most strongly feeling rock these days and Prince works from a very subjective rock/funk base with a heavy art on the guitar so I was ready to get it on.

The early show was as professionally put together and executed as you can get. Prince is known for his exacting standards but this shouldn't be considered negatively. The band was surrounded by large backdrops on which electrified images of rippling water were projected and, later, quotes from Abraham Lincoln and images of slavery era documents complimenting songs referring to issues of the African American plight from the 19th Century to today. Style is definitely an appropriate adjective for the early Prince show. All members were clad in black suits and Prince in his usual long coat and exaggerated cuffs and collar which add a nice accent to his dance moves. One distinction from the '80s version of Prince is that he's not as flamboyant as he used to be. Still a mite-sized power keg, though.

The music started in a very rockin' R&B jammy vibe led by the drummer who only relented the entire night (post-show included) during the jazzier and soulful ballads of the early show. This guy was doing at least 100bpm and still had energy and space to twirl the sticks, toss 'em in the air and revolve them around in a circle from hand to mouth to hand and over again. But the centerpiece of the opening portion of the early show was the keyboardist. He generated the liftoff the band achieved during the first few songs where Prince wasn't as much a factor as the rest of the band. We got a little guitar from him but that was about it until the more soulful R&B stuff kicked in.

The early show turned into a revue of musical styles. Prince bent and stretched his voice in that falsetto screech/squeal that Michael Jackson also does very well. The music drifted into jazzy ballads with the bassist on an upright and mellowed out the cave that Avery Fisher Hall is. As opposed to the last show I saw there (James Brown/Galactic a few years ago), the room's sound lacked that cavernous hollow so we were bathed completely with all the band put out.

Up to that point, the flow from song to song seemed more deliberate and the audience sat and stood in a reflective, orderly fashion. And then they took a firm upswing in to the funk with "Love Roller Coaster" and the classic soul romp "Pass the Peas" which they also turned into a mega tapestry at the late show. By this point in the early show, I kept wondering what was so different about this show that we don't see from acts like Lettuce. Especially with Maceo up there. His age and experience typified the early show which seemed much more in gear with mature R&B radio listeners that was, until they got to a cover of Sly & the Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song," accompanied by Larry Graham on vocals. All night I wanted to hear "Baby I'm a Star" because I was sure it would rock the house but it was the Sly song that accomplished that beyond the halfway point of the early show.

Earlier, during the modernized, trip hopped R&B portion of the gig where Prince was on keys/synth, he said something like, "if you came to hear 'Purple Rain,' you might as well head for the door now cuz it's not 1984."

OK, artists change over time and it's 18 years since the fiery Prince of his 20s raged out his pain through that album. After another episode of ballads that were more in the soul realm, Prince did hit his rock stride of the early show playing "Take Me With You" and "Raspberry Beret." Of course, the recognition of these pieces got the crowd hopping and set us up perfectly for a guitar driven Santana cover with the image of a flame on the screens behind him. That last portion of the early show's main set was what I came wanting to hear. That's not to say the rest of the show was poorly played, it's just a reflection of where I'm at musically these days. Prince plays some beautiful keys but it's his guitar which exists as the border between chaos and polish that gets me. He can rasp up the chords and turn it right over into scales and centralized picks in expert fashion.

After a lengthy bit of darkness with many waves of noise generated to induce an encore, Prince came back out for a lengthy medley of his own tunes which turned the joint into a revival tent. To the dismay of my eardrums, there were many ladies near me who felt the spirit and probably fainted only to be revived by someone's hanky and faint again. "Diamonds & Pearls," the "Beautiful Ones," "Purple Rain" and the song he wrote for Sinead O'Connor, "Nothing Compares to You" were most of what filled out the medley. It was poetry of love not for a romantic companion but for a full audience of souls he considers his family. The Prince family is the New Power Generation and membership in the NPG gets you first crack at information, tickets and the late night aftershows. This amplifies the feeling that Prince created during the first encore which was very spiritual and loving. When he played "Purple Rain," he explained that he wasn't originally going to play it but then he started thinking about how his parents influenced him in the positivity of change and belief in god.

At 43, it really feels like Prince has found his comfort zone. The emotional explosions in his early music and the label battles over his name and contract are behind him. Prince is surrounded by love and respect (like when Q-tip came out for a minute and referred to Prince as his mentor and brother) and everyone in the industry lauds his genius. Now it seems as if he's really settled into a place where he can comfortably fill a wide canvas however he wants and encourages his audience to help. He passed out percussion to the front rows, grabbed a guy on stage to sit there while he did a guitar solo and requested the house lights come up at a few points in the show so he could see us get off and we could see each other.

That warmth and group sentiment really seemed to be the vibe Prince was going for in the early show and what he used to cap it all off in the second encore. "Love is God, God is Love, Boys & Girls" Prince genuinely gets across the same kind of heart and soul togetherness, understanding and care that I also got from Santana when I caught his live show a while back.

Speaking of backs, mine was in bad shape when we walked out of Avery Fisher but some friends were piling in to a limo so in I went and soon found myself on a long line outside the WWF restaurant which calls itself The World when they do music shows. George Clinton was already in there doing an early show. Waiting out in the rain for two hours inspired many moments of questioning what I was still doing there but, by 4am, I felt ecstatic that I put in the time.

My friend turned to me before it started and asked, "are you ready for the real show?" The early show had pageantry, beauty and orchestration. The late show was a throw down of massive proportions. The stage set up was very minimal, just a bunch of mics, the keyboards and the drum set which was the exact opposite of the big time presentation of the earlier show. The World didn't admit too may people so there was a lot of room to groove, even on the floor. After that long wait outside, the feeling was highly combustible and Prince capitalized on that right from the first song.

He started off with his guitar built in the shape of the "Artist Formerly Known As" symbol and ripped off some delicious rock vamps pushed higher by frenetic drums and Larry Graham on bass this time instead of the woman who was with Prince at the early show. The man's a legend and every bang on that instrument showed why. The first two songs were rock ragers that left me silly and giddy. It picked up a few strides ahead of the rock portion that ended the early show and bounced everyone into a frenzy instantly. Graham was pumping out the balloon further and further and Prince shot fireworks all around it's ascension.

They then went into "Pass the Peas" and that's where the guests started coming out. Again, Maceo and the trombonist weedled and whomped but the killer part of that extended party jam was George Clinton and Doug E Fresh who took turns free styling. At this point, Prince stepped back a bit, mostly concerned with helping the generation of the rhythm and helping my vodka induced fuzz along. It was complete reverie!!! I had the party corner going and I was happy to be dancing and jiving and I can't remember the last time I danced to so much funk based music. What started off as the third song ran into a marathon of thumping bumping high energy riffs and beats that was maniacal and oh so much fun to say the least.

I know there was another classic soul cover after that but I forget what that was at this point. There was another guest free styler and, after that, things started to mellow a bit. That was when Prince took over the keyboards and Alicia Keyes came out to sing with him and play a little herself. The woman is a goddess. She has an amazing feel for melody and I could see the smile on Prince's face as he felt it too. At no point in the night did I get the feeling that Prince was the ruler of the evening. He could stand back and let the music go and jump back in to share the groove and seemed genuinely pleased with what the large group created all night.

At the end of the show, they came full circle back to the raucous funk. The late show had none of the ornate tapestry feel of the earlier show, nor did it contain any of the spiritual references. Instead, it was Sunday morning at Jazzfest and 4am seemed too early to have it end. Prince and his band effortlessly created a body massaging madness capable of muscular expressions of power, heat and down home jump. It's a good thing I'm unemployed so I could sleep it all off all the next day. Prince created many wide smiles early this morning. I left Avery Fisher thinking the music was OK, a nice display of diverse musical expression but I wasn't thinking of going back to another Prince show. I left the late night gig desirous to join the New Power Generation so I can catch future after parties. This wasn't one of those show your face industry meet and greets. It was an assemblage of fans both famous and not and everyone was there to contribute to a blissful vibe and just plain get down. Absolutely incredible. Absolutely.

Howie Greenberg
JamBase | New York City
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[Published on: 4/11/02]

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