Good Prince, Bad Prince

Reports of Prince's creative death have been greatly exaggerated.

Once Khan departed, Bad Prince surfaced for the first time. To wit: The public-address system boomed nonstop advertisements for The Truth, a yet-to-be-released CD that Prince is peddling over the phone (dial 1-800-NEWFUNK; operators are standing by) and the Internet, along with a series of Prince chatchkes that included (I'm not making any of this up) "NPG hockey jerseys," "the Artist necklace, available in silver and gold," and "'Mr. Happy' underwear." ("Mr. Happy" is a song from Emancipation.) No doubt Prince believes that such marketing is in keeping with his anti-corporate stance, but the robotic tone of the pitchwoman and the annoying repetitions of her spiel suggested an unintentionally comic tribute to 1984--except that the man in control was not Big Brother, but Big Artist.

These advertisements would have given the audience the perfect excuse to look upon Prince as a joke, and so did the primary stage decoration--a giant rendering of his personal emblem. When Prince finally emerged onto a platform, backlit a la the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his look was equally absurd. He wore his lightened hair in an ingenue's cut, hid his eyes behind a pair of Marilyn Monroe shades, and wore the first of three ridiculous outfits--a shiny, flowing ensemble that left him looking like a cross between Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in a one-man remake of Cabaret. But guffawing wasn't an option once he started to move. He may be in his late thirties, but he does not appear to have lost even one step. As his latest lineup of supporting musicians cranked out "Jam of the Year," Emancipation's first track, Good Prince leapt, spun, pirouetted, hopped, bounded, vogued and did heaven knows what else. He was a flurry of movement, a pint-sized, pelvis-driven Jackie Chan, and if some of his choreography seemed to have been borrowed from James Brown and other precursors, he unquestionably executed it with a litheness and grace that is presently unmatched. Just as astonishingly, he maintained complete control of the music, conducting the players in the manner of Mothers of Invention-era Frank Zappa even as he was flinging himself across the stage.

The set list featured a healthy sampling of Prince favorites, but rather than cloning his recordings, he cut to their essence, either by fragmenting them ("Purple Rain" was reduced to a verse, a chorus and an extravagant guitar solo, while "Raspberry Beret" developed into the briefest of sing-alongs) or by taking them to thrillingly absurd extremes. In Prince's hands, "If I Was Your Girlfriend" became fodder for an NC-17-rated piano bar, "Do Me, Baby" evolved into an erotic opus, and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," one of his weaker smashes, was delivered with such aplomb that half the women in the mob had shrieked themselves hoarse by its conclusion. In the midst of these presentations, Prince exhibited his skills on keyboards, bass, percussion and a wide variety of guitars, two of which shared the shape of that damn logo of his. It was showboating, sure, but his undeniable virtuosity justified it: If you were that versatile, you'd showboat, too. Besides, Prince didn't bring the proceedings to a halt in order to display his abilities. Because the music never stopped--not even for a second--the concert built up a momentum that rolled over practically everything in its path.

This intensity came in handy when Prince dug into his newer efforts. Songs like "Jam of the Year" and "Get Yo Groove On" aren't much more than pastiches of previous pieces of Prince, but they were much more enjoyable live than they are on plastic. More problematic was "Face Down," which was preceded by one of Bad Prince's two screeds about his war with Warner Bros. Fortunately, his blathering about mistreatment at the hands of "slave-masters" and rhymes such as "Somebody once told him that he wouldn't take Prince through the wringer/Let him go down as a washed-up singer/Ain't that a bitch" wound up being swallowed by funky grooves and slamming riffs that made his whining seem utterly superfluous.

Other missteps were more difficult to overlook. His decision to play the Joan Osborne hit "One of Us" was a poor one, in large part because he seemed to think the lines "God is good/God is great" were about him. In addition, there was precious little interaction with his bandmates--and when he invited four women from the audience onto the stage, he ignored them as well. For all his talk about reaching out to each other, he remains singularly self-possessed--a person who has difficulty climbing out of his own navel. When he looks outside himself to the world beyond, his work becomes warmer, more accessible and, quite frankly, better. He thinks of himself as a slave only because he doesn't have a clue about what real slavery is. If he talked to people other than purple-clad yes-men a little more often, he would.

The acclaim that has greeted Prince's current tour may inspire him to do so, but probably not. His Internet scheme sounds good on paper, but it has the danger of marginalizing him--of reducing his audience to the previously committed, thereby minimizing his opportunity to affect the culture on a mass level, as he is fully capable of doing. At Fiddler's, Good Prince gave such a riveting performance that you couldn't help but walk away from it cursing the little runt for pissing away so much of the Nineties on petty disputes, oddball tangents and creative dead-ends. The only person capable of preventing Prince from returning to the peaks he once routinely scaled is himself. And so far, he's doing a pretty good job.

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