A few pals went along to see Prince at this relatively Tiny venue……here’s Daves review…..
The second gig at The Academy in Manchester on the 22nd Feb was the culmination of a bizarre few weeks for me. It was set in motion by Prince and his new band 3rd Eye Girl.
At the start of February the social media, fans and journalists were predicting where and when Prince would be playing the first of his secret gigs. I had my radar locked on twitter but it was my daily dose of Shaun Keaveny and music reporter Matt Everitt that broke the news in which he succeeded in turning every Prince fan hulk green with envy. He’d been with a handful of journalists invited to Lianne la Havas’ apartment to interview the elusive megastar and then went on to an exclusive show at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. The general consensus seemed to be that this most gifted of musicians was back to his best.
In his interview with Matt Everitt, Prince had remarked that fans would only be charged £10 for tickets on the door because he didn’t yet know whether people would like his new band. He was either being very humble or extremely wise in his foresight as to what was to follow. The ardent fervor of fans prepared to queue in wind and rain, for up to 12 hours, to see their idol in intimate surroundings for £10 made this guerilla venture into gigging all the more compelling. I was glued to the story and very envious that the Londoners were getting all of the action. But Manchester gigs were in the offing.
It felt as though the stars were aligning in my favour. He’d played his last London gig at Ronnie Scotts on Monday night and was rumoured to be giving the first award at the Brits on Wednesday. It was highly likely therefore that the Manchester gigs would be Friday and Saturday night but where would they be? Bridgewater Hall, The Ritz, Apollo or Albert Hall? All small intimate venues.
On his predicted appearance at The Brits he announced that in Manchester ‘we’re going to rock it up there a little bit’. What totally threw people was the announcement on Wednesday night that Prince was to play The Academy on Friday and Saturday night with tickets going on sale for £70 each. I managed to snap up two tickets for Saturday.
Even though this ploy had gone against the Hit and Run Tour tactics in London which had been much cheaper in smaller venues, I had no qualms paying for two tickets at £70 a pop. I wouldn’t have to queue in the rain and I was still going to see my idol for the fourth time in by far the smallest venue I’ve seen him before. Following previous gigs at Birmingham’s NEC, Manchester GMEX and London’s O2 this was going to be special.
I’ve grown up with Prince. From eleven years old to my mid twenties he was the artist that set the precedent for any other artist or band that I was to follow. I watched Purple Rain countless times and knew every word to every song from 1999 to The Gold Experience. I don’t know whether it was my musical tastes that had changed, or that Princes’ albums in the late 90’s lacked the energy of the previous 15 years but he’d disappeared from my radar for some time. Every now and then I’d peak through the curtains to see what he was up to, but now it felt right to see him play again. In fact the urge was monumental.
We arrived at the venue at 7pm to join a sizeable queue. The girls in front of us had paid £300 for their two tickets, but they weren’t regretful in any way. “It’s only money, and you’ll never see him like this again”. They were right on both counts but it still irked me and the way in which touts operate.
At 7:30 the queue had wound its way into the entrance of The Academy. It was only half full on gaining entry. I’d taken my sister in law, Andrea, and two other friends James and his sister Laura from Urmston. Andrea let out a mini yelp at how small the venue was. The last time we saw him was at the O2. This was 10 times smaller. With drinks purchased we made our way to the right of the stage. Laura had a tip to go right as the mini maestro spends a lot of his time on stage at the keyboard on the right. This was also closer to the bar which was a better reason. My only fear was my legendary weak bladder. If he plays a long set I was going to lose my spot.
We were 15 metres from the stage and the atmosphere was electric. Just before 8pm the 3 band members of 3rd Eye Girl; Donna Grantis (guitar player), Hannah Ford (drums) and Ida Neilsen (bass) came out to rapturous applause. It was Hannah who respectfully asked the crowd not to take photos or record footage of the night ahead. It felt genuine and very few took advantage throughout the night. Those that strayed were picked out by burly bodyguards who embarrassed offenders with a flashing maglite and they promptly stopped.
A minute later the lights dipped, the guitars belted out and a voice yelled ‘That was then, this is now. We’re going to have a party!’ The roof almost lifted off the place there and then. An afroed Prince was there 15 metres away. He hadn’t aged. Apart from the hair he hadn’t changed. He glided around the stage, and belted out singing a slowed up version of Let’s Go Crazy. The party started.
From that moment on Prince made a connection with the crowd like no other performer I’ve seen. It didn’t happen in the big arenas where I’ve seen him before. Those gigs have always been good but not hugely memorable. This was different. He made it feel as though there were 200, not 2000 people in the room. He smiled, he winked, he danced with a cool arrogance that any other 55 year old would be a tad embarrassed with. And for the next 3 hours Prince and his new girl band took us through 40 tracks with 6 encores.
Not only were the crowd loving it, he and the band were loving it too. There were playful looks and smiles between them all night which made us smile. At one point he got a dozen people from the crowd to come on stage and dance as he played the keyboard. A grungy looking bearded dancer got a special mention as he left the stage with Prince applauding and saying thanks to ‘Mumford & Sons’.
There were countless highlights for me but the one I keep recalling is Sign “O” the Times, followed by Hot Thing and then Forever In My Life and later Housequake at which point the bass nearly lifted the roof off, again. The hairs stood on the back of my neck for as long as one of his encores. This might sound ridiculous but I found myself thinking a few times that I was in First Avenue in Minneapolis. I kept glancing over to Donna Grantis on guitar with long hair on one side and a shaved head on the other which made her look like Wendy from The Revolution. I half expected Morris Day and The Time to appear, and challenge the band to a battle off.
It was only when a handful of drunken Mancunians stole our elbow room for a while that I was brought back to the reality of being in studentville Manchester. Thankfully they didn’t stay long but it was never going to ruin the vibe. This was my most precious of musical heroes playing the soundtrack to half of my life before my smiley eyes.
The band left the stage after 1hr 40 mins but it felt as though there was still a long time to go. The previous night’s second gig that never was, due to low numbers outside, meant it was highly unlikely they’d do the same tonight. So we were there for the long haul. Each time they stopped for a break nobody moved, even when the lights went on. James kept nudging me to say the roadie had put the mike back on its stand. He was coming back on! His first encore delivered old classics at the piano including Starfish & Coffee, The Beautiful Ones, Sometimes It Snows in April and Nothing Compares 2 U. Good call Laura, we were at the keyboard side.
The second of his covers came in the next return to stage as he belted out Play That Funky Music by Wild Cherry. His return this time saw him adorned with a head band around his afro that had me thinking of John McEnroe. It was all very surreal. Time became irrelevant. My bladder even knew it couldn’t leave at any point.
After their 6th encore and 3 ¼ hours later the party was coming to an end. He lifted his guitar above his head and shouted “we are the best and so are you!” They certainly were and I think we were that night too.
The four of us didn’t talk much on the way home. The music buzzed around our heads. Laura was ‘encored out’, Andrea digested what had just happened before her eyes, and me and James tried to decide if it was the best gig we’ve ever seen. Two days later I know it was.