Prince’s continuing cultural cachet as a performer remains fascinating. How many of those prepared to stand for upwards of six hours in the February wind and rain to see him have even heard Lotusflow3r or 20Ten, never mind whether or not they intend to buy the upcoming PlectrumElectrum? Does it matter that the quality of his recent recorded work is inconsistent, when he can still entertain and play so brilliantly, and mostly without recourse to nostalgia? He remains a uniquely versatile musician who can pretty much execute anything, in any style, at any time.
Opting to launch his new 3rdEyeGirl band in London, Prince has embarked on a publicity and promotion strategy that is either an exciting new model for how superstars might operate, or is quite simply simply barking mad. Following a bizarre ‘press conference’ from Lianne La Havas’ house, 3rdEyeGirl now seem to be confounding and inspiring London audiences in equal measure by playing a series of gigs as flashmobs, announcing them mere hours before they are set to take to the stage and keeping prices to almost absurdly affordable levels (£10 in this case).
Tonight’s set at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire was announced on the radio in the early afternoon, and with word quickly spreading via social networks, a substantial queue formed, stretching back along the Uxbridge Road. Spirits were kept high by the provision of cups of hot chocolate. Some of those queuing early caught a glimpse of Prince and his entourage arriving at the venue.
This method of organising and performing will inevitably be frustrating for some people. After all, not many can afford the time and effort demanded from the audience (even on a Sunday). Still – it has its advantages. Rumours that the price would be a more inflated £70 proved unfounded as Prince once again kept the entry price down to £10. With no advance booking and no tickets issued before the day, Prince has essentially ensured that this run of gigs will be tout free. Even more importantly, the sheer determination and effort needed to secure entry to these gigs makes for an electric, elevated atmosphere in the venue.
The three members of 3rdEyeGirl (Donna Grantis, Ida Nielsen and Hannah Ford Welton) take to the stage promptly at 8pm with a polite request from the latter that audience members refrain from using their camera phones. This request, perhaps surprisingly, is largely adhered to from start to finish (Prince even points at an isolated offender, giving a steely and menacing look – he’s quite serious about this). The new song Funk N’ Roll exhorts the audience to “put your phone down and get your party on”’and, for the majority of this show, this is exactly what happens.
Here are some observations from close quarters, then. At 55, Prince may finally have started to show signs of ageing, but he still cuts a remarkably youthful figure. With his current tall Afro (adding inches to his otherwise diminutive stature), he looks once again close to how he appeared in the earliest stages of his career (and he even goes back that far musically with the closing version of Bambi). He still has an impressive feline agility that sees him prowling the stage from side to side. There are moments when he still seems surprised by his own genius, sometimes coaxing a phrase from his guitar and producing a facial expression of sheer, unbridled delight.
Musically, the clearest conclusion to draw from tonight’s experience is that 3rdEyeGirl are most definitely a rock band. Yes, Prince is still funky, and the music has a resolute, sturdy groove – but it’s also hard hitting and stoical too. All the macho cliches used to describe what is often a white male preserve (‘muscular’, ‘solid’, &C.) could all apply with greater accuracy here. Sometimes the music is really quite similar to Lenny Kravitz or Living Colour, but Prince deploys humour as much as bombast, and there’s something delightful in the assuredness of the execution, and in the sheer mastery of Prince’s performance. The opening re-arrangement of Let’s Go Crazy as a half time rock stomp provides the perfect introduction to 3rdEyeGirl’s modus operandi. There’s a similar treatment of I Can Never Take The Place Of Your Man a few songs later.
Whilst Prince used the initial Electric Ballroom soundcheck to road-test the highlights of the forthcoming PlectrumElectrum album, tonight sees him also reach back into neglected pockets of his career. There’s a strident, fuzzy take on She’s Always In My Hair (originally the B-side to Paisley Park) that makes it sound like a hit in its own right. It’s certainly a song that sounds as if were always designed for 3rdEyeGirl’s metronomic power. The band also tear through some of the lesser moments from Prince’s recent catalogue (last year’s single Screwdriver, the rather lightweight Guitar, Lotusflow3r’s Colonized Mind) and make them sound bold and confrontational. He even dips into his supposed Wilderness years (the period where he replaced his name with a symbol) and draws new authority and force from Chaos and Disorder to close the main set.
After a punchy and focused main set lasting about an hour, the encores ramble and wander delightfully, clearly showcasing the joy Prince takes in playing music. His exuberant guitar solos remain a source of constant entertainment and thrill rather than an indulgence, even more so when he duels spiritedly with Donna Grantis. His penchant for non-stop medleys of his best songs continues to grate, however, as 30 second snippets can never really do justice to works as strong and influential as When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, Adore, The Beautiful Ones, Sign O The Times, I Would Die 4 U or How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore. Still, when these medley sets give us glimmers of relative rarities such as Housequake and Hot Thing, and a version of Forever In My Life on which Prince gets frighteningly creative on bass, they retain the capacity to surprise.
Prince more than compensates for this rather dismissive, egotistic approach to the more famous moments from his catalogue (“How many hits have I got?”) with an epic, audience participation-fuelled rendition of Something In The Water (Does Not Compute). It is absolutely tremendous – lithe and elastic – and the clear highlight of the lengthy encores. Dreamer and I Like It There showcase Prince as the commanding entertainer, involving the audience as much as possible, and instructing for the lights to be turned down “so we can sing”. It feels as if it might never end.
Prince jokes that “y’all sure expect a lot from ten pounds” before going on to say that he has a big black hat backstage (“y’all don’t mind if I pass it around?”). It’s clear, however, that whilst this might be an ingenious piece of PR trickery offstage, while Prince is on the stage, business is the furthest thing from his mind. He has promised that these ‘hit and run’ shows will continue in London until people get bored with them, but as the Empire ends up packed right up to the upper circles, it seems unlikely that public interest in seeing him in these relatively intimate environments will wane any time soon. His name is Prince and he’s here all month.