The first in a series of rants and/or raves by Ray……..
Finding out that Prince is playing Manchester Academy is like finding out Beyonce will be in your local corner shop buying milk and lottery tickets. He has the same level of fame as Madonna, Cher, Kylie, Jacko and all those other stars whose level of fame dispenses with their surname, whose careers just keep going. These days Madonna is too cold and greedy to take her show to a handful of hardcore fans, and as Michael Jackson *probably* won’t tour again, the chance to see such a legendary star in such an intimate setting was an opportunity too good to miss.
It’s been 7 years since Prince last toured, and that was a residency at the O2 in London. Now he forgoes the scale and spectacle of those shows, and goes back to basics with a 3-piece female band plus male percussionist, and in such a small venue without the distraction of videoscreens and lightshows, it can only be about the man and the songs.
There’s nowhere to hide on a little stage.
The show was introduced by his backing band who ‘asked’ the audience not to take photos or film the show as that “disrespects the artist”, and “interrupts the communication between artist and audience. You wouldn’t hold your phone up while you’re talking to someone” they said, “please respect that”. Indeed those who were foolish enough to try and film anything were met with security men flashing torches directly in their cameras, and anyone who managed to get a clip on YouTube the next day had it taken down within 30 minutes by Prince’s management citing ‘copyright claims’.
The show split roughly into two parts, the first being all new material with his new band (3rd Eye Girl), who are one of the tightest bands I’ve ever seen. Note and beat-perfect, they comprised rhythm and bass guitars and drums with a wandering percussionist who filled in where gaps arose, but it was Prince, centre stage, stood under a purple spotlight behind his trademark ‘squiggle’ symbol, who directed the band, the sound engineer, the lighting and the crowd, a man in complete control that held everyone’s attention. Like that other legendary showman James Brown, he directed the entire show, urging the band to play another chorus, drop the drums, play bass only, all the while he strutted round the stage wielding a guitar and making it scream like Hendrix.
But it was in the second half of the show that he excelled. He started by playing Sign O’ The Times favourite ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ as a slow ballad, a swing-time lovelorn apology instead of the 4-on-the-floor rock it originally was back in 1987, and it was beautiful. From then on, there was no stopping him. Purple Rain stretched out into a 12-minute gospel experience, the entire audience screaming along. Forever In Your Life almost as an argument between his voice and the bass guitar. Hit after hit they came, some of them only getting two lines before he moved onto the next song. All the while his musicianship shone through, he jumped from rhythm guitar to bass guitar to keyboards, each one played with the confidence of a virtuoso. Sign Of The Times, When Doves Cry, Alphabet Street, Take Me With You, Hot Thing, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World (his only UK number one) they kept on coming. As with any great artist, the list of what he did play was just as noteworthy as the material he didn’t. Having seen Prince on consecutive nights in 1987 on the Lovesexy tour, I know that only about a third of the set was the same each night. I was so tempted to try and get another ticket for the next night to see if Kiss or Girls & Boys was on that nights setlist. “I can’t play all the hits” he said at one point, “there’s too many of them”.
At one point, a soundman rushed onstage mid-guitar solo with a microphone because he saw Prince was stood in front of a micstand with no mic. Prince didn’t even miss a note, he pulled the mic off the stand, threw it to the floor and carried on playing to even more thunderous applause. That’s the thing about style – you’ve either got it or you’ve not.
As a 55 year old man, he’d lost some of the trademark moves he had 30 years ago, so gone were the splits, the high kicks and the endless trotting around the stage in tiny Cuban heels. Instead, we got a superstar who stood centre stage, knew what we’d all come to see and delivered it. You’ve got to have the right amount of confidence to be 55 year old man with glitter in your hair wearing leather pants and STILL be the coolest person in the room.
After two and a half hours on stage, (prompted only, I suspect, by the venue’s approaching 11 o’clock curfew) he brought the magic to a close, and I have never heard an audience cheer as loud as they did when he left the stage. He then played five – count them, FIVE – encores, ending with a slowed down, stripped back version of Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music. By this point, if you weren’t dancing and sweating, singing along and feeling the love, you were probably dead. It was a hot, sweaty & brilliant gig that reminded me just why I love live music so much – because when it’s done well, it’s the most intense immersive emotional experience you can have.
In the half a dozen times I’ve seen him over the last thirty years, Prince has never disappointed me or anyone else in the room.
He is legend.