Three of us from Gemini Soul drove down from the Bay Area Friday morning. Andre has been an ardent fan since the first album, For You, and knows every obscure fact and song. Alex had never been to a Prince concert; Purple Rain came out before he was born. I fall somewhere in the middle of those two. All three of us were blown away.
The Nokia Theater show was a classic Prince concert. He played some of the big songs from his vast songbook including “Controversy,” “Kiss,” “Purple Rain,” “I Feel For You,” “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” and only two songs from the new CD: “Ol’ Skool Company” and “Crimson and Clover.” He offered a very funky version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” that creatively reinvented the song. Sheila E. joined him during the encore to sing “The Glamorous Life.” The mood was one big ol’ dance party, and no one could have come away from that show disappointed.
He told a story about someone who said to him that “music is what you do.” But he disagreed with that observation, explaining that “I am music” — not meant egotistically, but in the sense that music is his very being. As it is for all of us — and that’s what I’ve tried to express with this website.
We didn’t get tickets for the show at the Conga Room, thinking the venue was at its original location across town. But that gave us time to line up early in the fan line for the Club Nokia midnight show, and we were able to stand just three feet from the stage. For this venue, Prince offered a rare set list of lower profile songs. Backing him were his familiar touring colleagues Rhonda Smith (bass), Renato Neto (keyboards), and John Blackwell (drums) — all incredibly gifted musicians. The jazz-inflected arrangements may have surprised some people expecting more of “1999,” but it was the perfect complement to the first show and demonstrated Prince’s astonishing versatility (is there nothing this man can’t do?). I was transported to another plane. Chaka Khan joined him onstage during the encore for a lovely, slow rendition of “Sweet Thing.”
The sound at both venues was plagued by technical problems. Right from the start while we waited for the lights to dim in the Nokia Theater, the outlandishly cranked bass was distorting the house sound system, creating ugly pops like giant elephant farts. Prince had to direct the technicians to adjust various settings in between songs. At Club Nokia, similar problems, and a loud electrical buzz in the house speakers. Prince apologized to us, and one could sense his exasperation with AEG, the company that runs the theaters, but he played through the problems with consummate professionalism and did not let it interfere with the music.
At the end of the Club Nokia set, Prince cryptically said, “Thank you and good night, I’m Randy Phillips.” Say what? We’re all clapping for an encore and looking at each other perplexed. Alex shouts out “Randy Phillips” to try to bring Prince back onstage, which prompts the girl next to me to start chanting “Ran-dy, Ran-dy,” and the crowd takes up the chant. Prince strolls back out, looking a little surprised at how quickly we latched onto the name he threw out. It turns out that, in typical fashion, he had dropped us a clue. Randy Phillips is the CEO of AEG Live. According to their website, AEG is “one of the leading sports and entertainment presenters in the world.” It is shameful, then, that a “world class” corporation running some of L.A.’s premiere live music venues would foist such terrible sound on concertgoers.
Some reviews, such as the one in Variety, criticized the shows as disappointing despite wonderful moments. I find this deeply baffling. One senses that these critics fault him for not being able to jump off risers anymore and do the splits. I don’t think they heard the music or understand that a performance is a conversation between musicians (plural) and audience. You only get out of it what you put into it body and soul. From my perspective hearing Prince on March 28, it doesn’t get any better than that.