By: Dennis Cook
Prince :: 02.21.11 :: Oracle Arena :: Oakland, CA
Prince performs again at Oracle Arena tonight, February 23, and tomorrow, February 24.
As the lights dropped, the unmistakable voice of Prince came over the PA: “It’s now official. This is the best place in the world to be tonight.” While it would take a little while for that pronouncement to prove true, by night’s end there was little doubt that the Minneapolis powerhouse could electrify and delight a sold out arena audience. In terms of large scale, mass appeal entertainment, it’d be tough to better the Welcome 2 America hit-and-run tour currently underway. This show had been announced just five days earlier. Few artists could pull such a bold move and not face a half empty house, yet demand for these Oakland shows was so intense that a third show was added after the initial pair. Clearly there’s a collective hunger for Prince’s music and presence that transcends any of the usual industry indicators of chart/video/magazine presence, and the intensely mixed crowd – older Oakland natives, teens seeing their first Prince concert, 40-somethings that hopped on his ride with Purple Rain, packs of MILFS out for a wild night – sucked up every drop with a boisterous gusto that made one feel like a slacker if they weren’t clapping, shuffling and otherwise doing their part to make the night a celebration.
However, the evening got off to a clunky, disappointing start. Not one to disparage pioneers and legends, it’s hard for me to say that Larry Graham and his lukewarm new incarnation of Graham Central Station put on one of the most self-indulgent, musically empty displays I’ve witnessed in years. Strutting in decked out in a white almost-Zoot suit, Graham had been introduced with obvious glee by Prince and seemed to revel in the love his hometown crowd instantly poured on him. The man invented funk slap bass and anchored the low end in Sly & The Family Stone, so respect is due, but a rep isn’t music in the here and now and what this band laid down was sloppy, under-rehearsed and showy in the worst of ways. Many were dazzled by Graham’s Hendrix-esque shredding solo spotlight, backed only the drummer, yet there was nothing especially compelling it about beyond some strolling through the crowd off-stage and a lot of distortion. Not one of the songs really locked in or equaled a fraction of the original versions’ impact, and the mix, WAY too heavy on bass, was a painful mess that made it difficult to decipher any nuance in their sound. I kept thinking where a hungry, young band like Pimps of Joytime or The New Mastersounds would have made both the audience and Prince himself sweat a bit instead of a display that coasted on a legend that this performance didn’t back up in the slightest.
Things did brighten when Prince emerged for a set closing cameo on his own tune “Mountains” (glorious) and two Family Stone classics (“Everyday People” and “I Want To Take You Higher”) that bettered the band’s pre-Prince attempts at the Sly catalog by a healthy margin. Prince’s presence instantly elevated the entire affair, and I swear Graham Central Station played tighter and harder just so they didn’t disappoint the diminutive diva. And then just as quickly as his surprise entrance, it was over and the house lights came up. During intermission vintage live footage of classic soul acts like the Ike & Tina Turner Revue played overhead, which gave a fitting clue to what Prince is aiming for with Welcome 2 America.
What transpired during his main set and multiple “oh-it’s-over-oh-it’s-not!” encores was a modern take on the 60s/70s variety show style tours, which spotlighted different vocalists and aimed for broad appeal over artistic adventure or deep catalogue exploration. Outside of rare guitar slammer “Bambi” and The Time number “Cool” there wasn’t much that most casual Prince fans wouldn’t recognize. And even if one didn’t know a particular tune, the selections were largely softballs, easy to like and designed for partying and not intended to challenge folks much. The show is consciously constructed in this way; a choice confirmed by the Madison Square Garden shows, which hued a similar path. This isn’t really a dig since Prince has spent the better part of the last 20 years wandering in a world ALL his own, only occasionally brushing the charts while building one of the most fascinating, diverse studio catalogs of the modern era. That provocateur and innovator wasn’t on display in Oakland. Instead, we got something closer to his mid-80s mega-stardom days, right down to his high ‘n’ tight new hairdo and multiple costumes changes. And by God, it was a blast to have this cat back.
Mugging and taunting cheers and obedience from the audience from the first seconds of his main set, Prince was in his element, commanding not requesting our attention (“Somebody ain’t singin’!”), devotion and yes, love. Like some great grooving flower, he seemed to drink in Oakland’s sometimes unhinged adulation, the performance blossoming in kind as the night progressed. He’s freaky charming and overflows with talent, looking WAY younger than his 52 years, his voice and instrumental prowess having lost NOTHING over the decades. As always, he was surrounded by top-notch players and singers who follow his lead like lustily focused hunting dogs, snapping into action at a moment’s notice, turning on a dime with their leader, and each is capable of holding the spotlight for a period, too. With a unique stage design – who else could rock the house on a symbol of their own creation, perhaps THE most identifiable hieroglyphic of the past century – and quality video coverage, the action was delivered with clarity and zazz to the entire arena, especially with Prince constantly engaging us in chants and funky calisthenics. If nothing else, I’ve never seen Prince this happy or determined to connect with an audience in the dozen or so gigs I’ve witnessed since first seeing him on the 1999 tour. He seems ready to accept the accolades and affection that a huge number of people have for him, and if this means curbing some of his stranger proclivities and sticking to the tried-and-true crowd pleasers for the most part, then so be it.
Guests Sheila E. and Santana added real fireworks, with Sheila enjoying a splash of adoration herself during solo spotlight “The Glamorous Life” and a Prince boosted “A Love Bizarre,” while Carlos squatted and mangled Prince’s Telecaster for a ragged but right “Soul Sacrifice,” which prompted Prince to scream, “Somebody call the police!” Unlike many big name veterans, Prince has nothing to fear by sharing his stage with the likes of Sheila E., Santana and Larry Graham. There was never a moment’s doubt whose show this was, and his graciousness to his band and guests only speaks to his powers as a fine bandleader and general mood conductor. In fact, I can’t think of an arena-size gig in the past few years as well coordinated to produce maximum pleasure, with the possible exception of Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood production for Crüe Fest 2. Giant size entertainment is a challenge to pull off well, but Welcome 2 America manages to do it with great aplomb and seeming spontaneity.
This last point – seeming spontaneity – is mainly due to the many false endings and hairpin turns mid-song during many numbers – not many songs were played in their entirety. This sort of thing is a train wreck without a great deal of rehearsal and planning, and it went off without a hitch in Oakland. All of this is vintage James Brown mixed with a bit of 70s Pyramid-era Earth Wind and Fire – nothing new but deadly effective nonetheless. And Prince knows it. He’s always been as much about tradition as he is innovation. It’s that swirl of yummy-nummy familiarity and freaky wildness that makes Prince so ready for uber-worship and hyper-fandom. He’s always a touch newfangled AND old school, and he did a fine job of showing off that mixture in Oakland. Sure, he barely touched on huge chunks of his songbook, especially anything from recent years, and would it kill him to toss in a Black Album or Crystal Ball nugget? However, these are the niggling complaints of a 30 year Prince fanatic. I can step back from my own mania to see what an utterly successful and wildly enjoyable spectacle Prince has embarked on in his current chapter. Anyone who gets to experience this show is in for major good times and should count themselves lucky to have scored a seat at what is currently the premiere arena show hitting towns.
Uptown, Raspberry Beret, Cream, Cool (The Time cover), Let's Work, U Got the Look, The Glamorous Life (performed by Sheila E.), Soul Sacrifice (Santana cover w/ Carlos Santana), Duet by Shelby J and one of the other female singers, Misty Blue, Rude Boy (Rihanna cover), A Love Bizarre (Sheila E. cover), Controversy
Encores: Purple Rain, Kiss, If I Was Your Girlfriend, Insatiable, Scandalous, Adore, Bambi, Dreamer, Welcome 2 America
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