He may not have had a Top 20 hit since 1999 (and even that was a re-issue – no prizes for guessing which), but all of a sudden, Prince feels like a global superstar once more. Although each new album is routinely hailed as “a stunning return to form”, only to be forgotten a few weeks later, a cunning marketing ploy has ensured that Planet Earth, his most straightforwardly accessible release for years, has shipped over 2 million copies in the UK alone. OK, so it was given away free with a Sunday newspaper, but tough times call for desperate measures.
His profile duly raised, Prince has now installed himself at London’s O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) for the next couple of months, playing a series of 21 dates to crowds of 20,000 at a time. With the opening night of the season – a marathon, hit-packed extravaganza – instantly gaining ecstatic reviews from the national press, the Purple One’s re-ascendance to the major league already seemed complete.
However, second nights can sometimes tell quite a different story – and last Friday’s showing was a classic example of the dangers of promising too much, too soon.
As measured by the time between the first and the last notes played, Friday’s set clocked in respectably, at just under two hours. During that time, Prince himself was absent from the stage for at least thirty minutes, leaving his band to serve up an eclectic but pointless array of covers. One of them, a syrupy lounge-jazz rendering of What A Wonderful World, quickly turned into a mass stampede for the bar. This was good news for the large section of the crowd who seemed more interested in getting the beers in than focussing on the music.
Although billed as a “last ever chance” to hear Prince play his greatest hits, the show was noticeably short on crowd-pleasing classics. Of the twenty songs played, only seven had ever troubled the Top 20, and the gaps between them were sometimes dangerously long.
In their place, we had unloved recent album tracks (Satisfied, Lolita, Musicology), seldom heard fan favourites (Joy In Repetition, Anotherloverholenyohead), and a lengthy trudge through Wild Cherry’sPlay That Funky Music, for which Prince forgot most of the words.
None of this was helped by the abysmal sound quality: booming, sludgy and echo-laden, with a general absence of top-end clarity. Neither was it helped by the seeming inability of the lighting crew to keep a spotlight trained on their star performer, frequently leaving him cavorting in the darkness.
Nevertheless, the evening was not without its highlights. Led by a stunningly tight four-piece brass section which included veteran James Brown sideman Maceo Parker, the band displayed all the stellar musicianship that you would expect from a Prince show, particularly during the funkier numbers such as Black Sweat and Controversy. A reworking of I Feel For You (as made famous by Chaka Khan) hit the spot with the crowd, as did the cheekily updated Kiss, which now proclaims that “You don’t have to watch Big Brother to have an attitude”. Songs from the Purple Rain soundtrack dominated the end of the set, with the sole selection from the new album saved for the final encore. It was a shrewd gamble, as the straight-up old-school rocker Guitar went down a storm, already sounding like a future classic.
Ultimately, the biggest let-down was the man himself. Although undeniably energetic, there was something essentially half-hearted about Prince’s performance, which displayed all the signs of Just Another Day At The Office Syndrome. For the second night of a two-month run, this did not bode well.
For the 2000-strong audience who hung around for the “Official Prince Aftershow Party” at the smaller Indigo2 venue next door, an even bigger disappointment was in store. After patiently waiting through a “surprise” 80-minute set from Dr John, who had played a scheduled show at the same venue earlier, the crowd were eventually shown the door at 3:30 am, Prince having apparently declared himself too tired to perform. The following night, he appeared on stage for just one number. At £27.50 a ticket for what amounted to a lottery – something that was not made clear at the time of booking – this was a rip-off on a grand scale, which left a sour taste at the end of a long and lacklustre night.