BY JAMES MOORE
I saw the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Knownas Prince in Champaign, Illinois.
It was in one of those titanic arenas big stars fill up these days. Farbelow our seats at sea level (we decided to go late), lay a stage in theshape of a big plus sign. The diminutive funk-soul-brother with the “yuge” talentborn Prince Rogers would be able to shimmy his chimichanga towards thefour winds at will, service every corner of the circular facility, asit were.
Maybe I’m getting old, or just waxing nostalgic for the buzz Iused to feel at concerts before they became littered with dinosaur bonesand Britney-Spearified (now a brunette, my sources say) or American-idolized,but something’s missing. In the “old” days it was likea quasi-religious experience, less of a fashion scene. Sure, there wasalways an element of fashion or anti-fashion involved, but it was moreabout “seeing” than being seen.
It took a while for the business part of the music business to overwhelmthe creative side, but the lucrative demographic slowly succumbed to thetight grip of corporate meat-hooks. Today, music in bulk is as lamestreamas Downy Fabric Softener or McDonald’s (whose CEO just died of aheart attack, God rest his soul. Hopefully, it had nothing to do withthe food he ate).
We’ve come a long way, baby. Hits appear with ad campaigns beforethe dew is even off a song’s rise. Singers showcased on AmericanIdol with their sure-thing built-in marketing are selling out arenas beforethey’ve ever toured. Money has always talked but now it’sshouting. People are selling their marriages, illnesses, and private lives(Jessica Simpson, the Osbournes, Paris & Nicole, etc.) through theauspices of “Reality TV,” the grandmother of all oxymorons.Bottom line: exposure pays.
In Texas, I read, the governor wants to pay for education by adoptinga “sin tax.” By raising taxes on legal naughty things likecigarettes, gambling, and strip clubs, he will be able to lower propertytaxes for wealthy homeowners, shifting the tax burden to the shiftless,so to speak. A former judge is afraid there won’t be enough sinto cover education, but the governor is willing to expand electronic gamblingoperations.
What’s the response at the Yellow Rose, a topless bar in Austin?
One dancer, 23, a young mother of two, feels an admission tax wouldn’thurt business because “men are men.” But another 32-year-olddancer, a mother and homeowner with a bachelor’s degree in art,is appalled by the governor’s proposal. She says linking the adultentertainment industry with school children is immoral.
“The governor wants to give the owners of the biggest houses atax break,” she told the New York Times, “and he wants womenwho have to take their clothes off for money to pay for it.”
So what has all this got to do with Prince?
I didn’t like the sound system, okay?
The curse of big rooms. It is hard to distinguish the bass and the drumsfrom our nosebleed perch. But Prince is great, as always a consummatepro, exuding palpable cool, relaxed but still pumped, wearing 5-inch stilettoheels, dressed to the nappy nines in a long-coated red suit, leopard guitarstrap. Looks a bit like Little Richard these days.
I love Prince, man. Forty-five years old. The guy is 12 cottage industriesin one. He can do it all: play, write, dance, groove, record, produce––anything.Even after his recent admission into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fameand 25 years on the scene, he can still shake any number of tail feathers,Jehovah’s witness and all. He now eschews swear words. (So muchfor my dream of hearing “Sexy M.F.”)
He is on tour for the first time in six years with the New Power Generation,an incredible five-piece band plus three horns with John Blackmore ondrums. When this crew hits the pocket it is deep, thick, wide, and endless.My favorite spot is when Prince and his rhythm guitarist do a guitar break.A smokin’ little cherry-poppin’ liquid soul wicka-wicka interludetill the band kicks back in. He does a mind-blowing acoustic set featuring “LittleRed Corvette,” “Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “WhenDoves Cry.”
This is the third time I’ve seen him, twice in arenas. Neitherof which I enjoyed as much as his birthday gig a couple years ago in hometownMinneapolis, kicking off his nationwide tour. Maceo Parker and Sly’sbass player among the madness. That night he came back for an hour-longencore!
Somewhere in the late 90s, I saw the Joffrey Ballet perform at HancherAuditorium to seven of Prince’s songs, including “Purple Rain,” thequintessential torch ballad out at the height of his POP-ularity. Sevenfloofer-doll ballerinas leaping and pirouetting across the stage. Thedramatic rendering actually brought tears to my eyes in three separateplaces. I realized Prince’s ornate and densely packed music is somethingpeople will be listening to for years to come.
In Champaign, Prince gives his new CD, Musicology, to everybody who buysa ticket. (Nice, except the damn tickets were $60.) I like the new collectionthough it’s sort of a throwback. But Prince’s retro funk stillsounds resoundingly current, probably because he’s always been sofar ahead of the curve that when he looks back, he ends up in the hereand now.
You hear traces of James Brown, in the groove, Al Green in Prince’ssuperfluid falsetto, Jimi Hendrix flourishes in style and attitude, evenEric Johnson in terms of light-fingered fancy-flight guitar. (The lattertwo aspects are more apparent live, when he takes masterful extended guitarsolos.)
To quote a Billboard Magazine review: “While this album does notbreak new ground, it focuses on a fun and playful Prince whose turn ofphrase and instrumental dexterity call to mind why we embraced him inthe first place—and still do.”
I love it. He is teaching a new generation about his core values withMusicology, a history lesson worth taking. No taped vocals or robot choreographya la Britney. Prince plays and sings and it’s live, baby, 100 percentorganic. Nothing synthetic but the synthesizers themselves. My kind of “RealityTV.”
Live music has been dying a slow death for many years. It’s becomingan anachronism, kind of like books (people don’t have time to read).The crush of creativity has moved into digitization; press a button andyou’re in business. Computer, click and fly. Infinite possibilitiesat your fingertips. But there will always be affinity spirits who liketo traipse barefoot in the garden of earthly delights.
For those, it’s always a beautiful day in Mister Rogers’sneighborhood.
Listening to the Purple One’s encore, the arena bathed in purplelight, I jot down a few random thoughts:
If there is any hope left in America, it is in the power of transcendencefrom the heart of a people that lives to be cleansed by purple rain. Thisis the America the world is moved by, not massive weapons and greedy corporations.
I break into a smile. Could swear Prince is singing “Gerbil Rain,Gerbil Rain.” Stupid sound system. Guess it beats frogs.