Prince Delights Himself (And a Small Crowd) at DNA Lounge, 4/23/13
Prince with 3rdEyeGirl
Prince performing on the Live Out Loud tour. (File image; photos were not allowed in S.F. last night.)
Tuesday, April 23, 2013 (Early Show)
Better than: Cheaper peep shows.
Your entertainment is largely incidental here. Prince's own delight is the principal concern, although you're free to soak up any pleasure that's left over (and there is plenty). Tonight Prince will issue demands, and either you or his band will comply with them. When he wants you to sing, you sing. When he says, "I need some church clap," the whole crowd church claps -- but you also heed when he cautions, "Listen to the drummer now, don't get excited." And when his 800-person rhythm section finally falls into the groove, he makes some approving sexual analogy and grins brightly, and everyone else grins, too.
Prince is, of course, a consummate showman. But the best part of last night's performance at DNA Lounge was the show on his own face. Watching him appreciate his exquisitely talented bandmates, make orgasmic expressions at his own fire-throwing guitar work, or giggle while punching the silly percussion effects on his keyboard, it was clear that a Prince show like this isn't about him trying to make the crowd happy. It's about him making himself happy. Your joy, as an audience member, comes from watching Prince use everything at hand to give Prince pleasure.
If this sounds a little masturbatory, well, so did last night's show. On the current Live Out Loud tour (and likely on the forthcoming Plectrum Electrum album), Prince and his new backing trio, the excellent 3rdEyeGirl, are in full face-melting rock-guitar mode. Few of the older songs he played sounded like their recorded versions; most were sexed-up. The Purple One spent much of yesterday's early set blazing away on his axes, trading licks and solos with 3rdEyeGirl guitarist Donna Grantis. Prince is a superlative player with perhaps the best tonal palette we've ever heard live, so it was absolutely thrilling to see him go fretboard-to-fretboard with a near-equal like Grantis. We took it as no coincidence that his curent look -- a bushy afro and pencil 'stache -- strongly recalls the image of Jimi Hendrix. When he blazed through "Bambi," "She's Always in My Hair," or "Guitar," you could hear the late blues-rock great in Prince as easily as you could see him. (Full setlist below.)
No performance from The Artist would be complete without a demonstration of his funk credentials, and we got plenty of nasty grooves in the two-hour set. Prince bounced around instruments, from guitar, to vocals-only, to keyboard, even at times demanding the five-string bass from Ida Nielsen to show his own considerable skill at slapping. "Funk is in my DNA," he insisted at one point, and we were in no position to argue: Prince devoted the end of the main set to a thumping medley that leapt from "Sign 'O' the Times" to "Forever In My Life" to "Hot Thing" to "A Love Bizarre" (his duet with Sheila E.) to "I Would Die 4 U." When it was over, Prince threw down the bass and bellowed something into the mic about how ridiculously funky he was. Even the Purple One gets seduced by the Purple One.
Any small setting for a Prince show would be a rare treat, although DNA did leave a bit to be desired. Although the sound was excellent, the dance club isn't designed to give a clear view of the stage from all points, so some in the crowd spent the show looking at a pillar, or the back of a speaker stack. A full house was a given, but the situation last night approached Tokyo subway conditions, with arms pinned at sides and traffic jams where one person wanted to move but there was literally no space to let them through. Forget shoving off to the bar to grab a drink: If you could see some of the stage and breathe at the same time, you were doing well.
When you could see the portion of the stage that Prince happened to be inhabiting, though, it made for the kind of weird brain eruption that only comes from being in close proximity to a ridiculously famous person. The man comes over and makes eye contact, and you see the muscles in his cheeks, you notice the detailed paint job on his guitar, you watch him flash a tooth-whitened grin as his fingers leap up the fretboard for another aw-shit guitar lick. We could have written an entire review of Prince's facial expressions: The orgasmic string-bend, the dirty funk stink-face, the angelic falsetto-reach. But whether he's masterfully playing his own instruments, subtly directing his band, or going over to personally adjust his monitor levels on the stage-adjacent mixing board, one thing is always clear: This is Prince's show, held for Prince's pleasure. You are just here to watch him get off.
Is he human? A canny friend of ours afterward pointed out one notable absence from Prince's appearance last night: sweat. At the end of his two-hour show, the man looked bone-dry. How this happened, we cannot fathom.
R.I.P. Richie Havens: Prince offered two tributes to the '60s folk singer, who died yesterday. He first mentioned Havens at the start of the show, then, later, played a version of "Freedom," the powerful tune that closed Havens' Woodstock set. From there, he went straight into a hard-grooving "Joy in Repetition."
Just jamming: During one particularly goofy, free-form moment playing with his band, Prince muttered, "If you was at my house, we'd be doing the same thing." It came out almost as an excuse. And we have no trouble believing it.
Typical: Given that he was playing another show immediately after ours, we figured Prince wouldn't be able to do his typically long series of encores. We were wrong. After a meaty main set, the band members disappeared, while the crowd howled for them to return. When they did, Prince said they had time for just one more song. But they spent at least another half-hour onstage. At that rate, we're very curious what time the later show started -- and ended.
She's Always in My Hair
Freedom Motherless Child [Richie Havens reinterpretation]
Joy in Repetition
Sometimes it Snows in April
I Like it There
Sign 'O' The Times
"Forever In My Life" / "Hot Thing" / "A Love Bizarre" / "I Would Die 4 U" [medley]
U Got the Look
2 Young 2 Dare