Prince: The Passion of Prince
April 10, 2004, Champaign, Illinois, Assembly Hall
Every spring, around the world, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ over a three-day weekend culminating with his rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. On April 10th, 2004, Holy Saturday, I witnessed a different kind of resurrection from a man who has always been a distinguished musician, yet who has been unwilling to embrace or acknowledge his past for the better part of a decade. As humans, we all too often do not acknowledge that we have a hard time coming to grips with our pasts. The key is to not dwell on the past; it's over and done with but it is equally important not to ignore it altogether. There are always lessons to be learned which are essential to having us move forward-I believe there are no mistakes in life, only "experiences". On a rainy spring night in the college town of Champaign, Illinois, I witnessed a man who has reached the highest highs and some of the lowest lows, he's been to hell and back only now in 2004 is he rising like a Phoenix from the ashes. He has finally been able to come to terms with his past and in the process it has given him a new outlook on the future. I saw this man preach his word to twelve-thousand devoted followers as he delivered a performance that was beyond entrancing. The Artist formerly known once again as Prince shined like a star from the sky so big that when he belted out "Baby I'm A Star", all twelve-thousand people could not deny his bigger than life presence (despite being only 5'2'), they took those words as gospel.
I had never seen Prince live before so I decided to catch one of the first stops of his recent tour, two hours outside of Chicago. It was worth the trip because I found myself in the fourth row right by the stage where his purple majesty would shortly begin his service. Shortly after 8pm, the time had arrived for the purpled one to take center stage. We were treated to a collage of video clips of his career, and the induction speech given by Alicia Keys at this years Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame. Once it was over, his band, the NPG, jammed away into the opener, "Musicology", the title track from his new album (which is given to everyone as a free gift who attends the show). His new material, while not as revolutionary as many people say it is, is stripped back and more accessible than his jazz-funk experimentations of the last few years. "Musicology" was the perfect opener as it set the tone for the entire night. After this opening number I heard fourteen words that changed the temperature in the arena: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life". From that moment on, the crowd and performer went full speed ahead into overdrive into a rigorous whirlwind that would not give up. "Let's Go Crazy" was the first of the "Purple Rain" sequence giving the crowd a feeling just like a hit of a potent drug, except no chemicals were being sold on this college campus, the only thing stimulating people's minds were the music penetrating our ears. "I Would Die 4 U", "When The Doves Cry" and "Baby I'm A Star" were all played in sequence. This opening medley set the stage for what may arguably be the best tour of 2004. During these opening numbers Prince was all over the in-the-round stage and gave the fans more than they could have hoped for. It's one thing to play your biggest hits and another to deliver them with vigor. He could have slept through these numbers as their history sell themselves, but he was out there, upfront and interacting with the crowd making them a part of the show. He recognizes the audience as an element as essential to the concert as he is.
For close to an hour, Prince worked the crowd as one massive jam led into another without any time to breathe. It included hits ("D.M.S.R"), songs from early in his career ("I Feel For You") and monster singles ("Controversy"). The man worked the arena as if were a small club, like a man fighting for his life constantly interacting with the crowd making sure they were vivacious and vibrant like a Baptist choir. It's as if he placed everything he owns on the "Musicology" album and tour. The first hour of this show was one of the most exhausting experiences of my life as I was drained sweaty and physically beat as he did not slow down the show for even one song. Little did I know that this was just the beginning?
As the band brought the first set to a close, Prince appeared center stage with an acoustic guitar and Mike Scott of his backing band, the NPG, off to the side. After the exhausting funk-soul jams for the first incredible sixty minutes, the audience was about to be treated to something truly miraculous. With the house lights on, Prince on a revolving chair and an acoustic guitar was about to treat us to an acoustic set, which was an epiphany. The acoustic "Little Red Corvette" is so restrained yet spellbinding you almost needed to pinch yourself to make sure you are not dreaming. He followed with the forgotten "Sometimes It Snows In April", a gem from 1986's "Parade" which I had never truly appreciated until this moment. "I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man" brought smiles all around as the crowd sang along to every word and giving the arena an ambience of a small club. The acoustic set showed that even pop gems can be given new life.
The infectious "7" transitioned the acoustic set into chapter two of the full funk explosion. "Sign Of the Times" followed suit as he continued to deliver a fine balance of hits and album tracks including "Let's Work" which led into an over the top performance of "U Got The Look" which showcased Prince's devastating guitar work. Watching him play any instrument, let alone the guitar is so riveting, that only one word comes to mind while I watch him; Hendrix. He's a singular artist that you cannot really compare to anyone else to as talent just gushes out of his tiny 5'2' frame. While watching him play "U Got The Look", I felt myself transcended to another place. I now know what people felt when they saw Jimi Hendrix play the guitar. Like Hendrix, Prince is otherworldly. He must be an alien; can it be possible that any human on this earth is this good? I sat there with my eyes gaping in disbelief because of the grace and magnificence he brings to the instrument. I can guarantee you that anyone who witnesses the miracle that is Prince live will see one of the greatest living guitarists working today. This is a man who has more talent in his tiny pinky finger than most of the human race has in their entire body.
The new "Musicology" song, "Life O' The Party" effortlessly flowed into the nostalgic set and kept the crowd on their feet and animated. The classic Sam and Dave song, "Soul Man" got a workout with lead vocals by Chance Howard, a NPG member, followed by the audience favorites "Kiss" and "Take Me With You". During this last half hour, Prince brought a number of fans up on stage to dance as he prowled the stage conveying each and every song with great passion. He even had about twenty fans come on stage for the final few songs and one of them included a Prince look alike circa 1990, the "Graffiti Bridge" era. He climbed onto the stage showed some dance moves and caught Prince's attention. At this moment, Prince gave the microphone to him and sang the next line to the song without missing a beat. This is one of those priceless moments that no cd or lip-synching could offer you; it justifies every cent you spent on the ticket. I know he's promoting these shows as the "last time" he will perform these hit songs, but the man is full of paradoxes which he will not doubt break, he is performing them too vigorously to give up on them now. He finally appears to be at harmony with where Prince has been and he knows now that going forward, whether he likes it or not, his past is part of who made him who he is today. I think his internal struggle for his creative freedom, monogamous marriage, and most importantly his newly discovered faith in God has led the man and artist to a state of tranquility.
The fifteen-minute finale of "Purple Rain" was beyond beautiful; the slow driving beat, the lush melody, the vocal delivery and way the song kept building until he took the guitar and wailed on it. It's almost as he is speaking to you and expressing every bit of emotion and passion he has ever had in his tiny body through the six-string axe. The constant singing of the crowd, which sounded like a Sunday morning choir, in the background was merely icing on the cake. As he finished his solo, he handed his guitar off and waved to the crowd as he disappeared below the stage. The evening had come full circle as everyone was leaving the arena with animated smiles on their faces because not only did they see Prince, but this is arguably the best he's ever been. Plain and simple, live concerts don't get much better than this. While I don't ever feel he completely crashed and burned from an artistic standpoint, I do feel that Prince is rising from the ashes. The morning following the show, I went to Easter Mass with my family to celebrate the rising of Jesus Christ from the dead. The previous night in Champaign and every night until Prince finishes this tour, who ever goes will witness the same resurrection of the artist we once again call Prince.
- Let's Go Crazy
- I Would Die 4 U
- When Doves Cry
- Baby I'm A Star
- I Feel For You
- God (instrumental)
- Little Red Corvette
- After Midnight (tentative name)
- Telemarketer Blues
- On The Couch
- Sometimes It Snows In April
- I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
- Sign O' The Times
- The Question Of U / The One
- Let's Work
- U Got The Look
- Life O' The Party
- Soul Man
- Take Me With U
- Purple Rain