Guest review: Is Prince turning into the next Axl Rose?
Prince's first show at Chicago's United Center this week is bringing in VERY mixed reviews. Among the complaints: Not enough guitar-playing by the Purple One, too many covers and the ultimate bizarro move: Prince left fans waiting AN HOUR before returning to the stage for his final two encores. Click here to read the full review from the Chicago Sun-Times. And click here to see the crazy-wild set list.
But now, we also have a guest review from a Stuck in the '80s friend. Jim Wendling, our midwestern correspondent, was there Monday and wrote this review. Take it away, Jimbo.
On Monday, Chicago was buzzing with anticipation for Prince’s three-night stand at the United Center. He hadn’t played the city since 2004’s Musicology tour, and the reviews of the “Welcome To…” shows in other cities were stellar. Expect him onstage between 7:30 and 8, fans were told, and the show would run until 11:30. The House Of Blues in Chicago would be opening its doors at 10 for an 11:59 after-show that would run until 4 in the morning. But by Tuesday morning, Chicago was once again buzzing about Prince…although for much more negative reasons.
It was 9 pm before the funky little guy finally took the stage, dressed in a half-black, half-white suit. The stage was shaped like the symbol he had adopted as his name in the mid-nineties, and was made of a plasma screen that projected images beneath his feet. The New Power Generation band was in a small pit area, and a horn section was separated from the stage by about thirty feet. The stage was surrounded by a section of tables, giving fans willing to shell out upwards of $500 per ticket a nightclub feel (as well as a chance to get pulled onstage in groups to dance with Prince).
After a nice opening of “D.M.S.R.”, “Pop Life”, and “Musicology”, things began to feel, well, a little wrong. The lighting cues were all over the place, forcing Prince to repeatedly run to catch up with his spotlight. The music mix was also a bit off; during some songs the horn section or bass player would drown out all other instruments and voices. And the giant screens set up usually only displayed Prince’s microphone stand, with an occasional glimpse of his hand or arm. Prince is known as a perfectionist, and while his band was talented and tight, the magic of a normal Prince performance seemed to be missing. The United Center (home of the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks) is a notoriously bad place to see a concert, but never had I seen literally everything go wrong at the same time.
None of which would really matter if the show had worked. I’m nearing double digits on Prince shows, and never have I seen such a uninspired setlist. After “Musicology”, he began a long and rather disappointing set of covers, slowly losing momentum. This version of The NPG boasted three stellar female backup singers, but as the night went on more and more of the singing was handed to them. Look, they sang wonderfully, but everyone in the audience had paid upwards of $100 a ticket to hear Prince sing, and there was precious little of that on display.
The run of other people’s old hits, as good as the songs might be, just weren’t what people wanted, and even as he demanded the house lights be kept on so that he could watch us watch him, most people sat and waited for the show to really begin to click. They did jump up for fun covers of The Time’s “The Bird” and “Jungle Love”, followed by a cover of Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life”, but again the show began to plod with a version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that was drowned out by the horns, followed by a very long cover of Sarah McLachlan’s song “Angel” that was sung entirely by the backup singers. For about ten minutes I felt as though I was trapped in an ASPCA commercial; all I could see in my mind was sad-eyed dogs and cats with casts on their legs. The air began to drain from the room; the sound of music was replaced with the sound of fans scratching their heads in bewilderment.
“Take Me With U” came next, and Prince finally strapped on his guitar. As soon as he started playing, though, it was clear something was very wrong. All the instrument could produce was a low hum, and he quickly handed it to a tech to fix. “Raspberry Beret”, “Cream”, and a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” were mostly reduced to audience sing-alongs, and suddenly the first set was done.
After a very short break, Prince delivered a version of “Purple Rain” that was soaring and majestic, filling the arena with goosebumps. “Chicago, do you mind if I play guitar?”, he asked as the song neared the end, and while Chicago didn’t mind, the guitar clearly did. After a couple of seconds of a low hum, he threw it at (not to, but at) a guitar tech standing off-stage, and that was it for the instrument. This seemed to mean that songs like “Let’s Go Crazy” or “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”, both guitar-based songs, were quickly scratched from the setlist.
After a fun “Kiss” (with ‘Real Housewives’ replacing ‘Dynasty’ in the lyrics), things got odd. Prince sat at his keyboard, using pre-recorded elements to cram the hits portion of the show, the part everyone had been waiting for, into a medley. “When Doves Cry” was performed in full, but most songs got a minute or so of play time. “Alphabet St.” got nothing more than an intro, and when “Darling Nikki” started playing, the Jehovah’s Witness Prince, who will no longer sing the “dirty” songs, just sat and shook his head with a smirk until another song came on to replace it.
After beginning “I Would Die 4 U”, he abruptly stopped it before singing a word. “I don’t wanna sing that, I wanna sing something else,” he announced, launching into “If I Was Your Girlfriend” instead and earning a smattering of boos. “If you didn’t hear what you wanted to,” he said, “come back tomorrow,” before hyping the after-show. And just like that, after playing from 9 until 11, he was gone. “You’d better call your dadgum babysitters,” he had said earlier, “because we’re gonna play until tomorrow.” He had been just a little off on that promise.
And then the real debacle began. Massive confetti bombs had gone off during “Purple Rain”, and with the house lights off a lone worker came up with a mop, and from 11 until 11:40, he swept the stage. Most fans clapped and cheered (and laughed at the guy), but as the endless cleaning went on, more and more people began to leave. At 11:40, the smoke machines began to puff, and people cheered anew…until the house lights suddenly clicked back on at 11:45, signaling the end of the night. Ushers and security began to clear fans out. At midnight, with the building clear of all but a couple of thousand people, and after a wait of an hour, the band came back up and Prince performed “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” to a nearly empty building before calling it a night.
It had been a passable show by the standards of most live performers (technical issues aside), but an extremely poor performance for someone like Prince. The House Of Blues After-Show, sold out at $75 to $150 a ticket, made things worse. His band went on at 3 am, lead by his backup singers (with no Prince in sight), and ended the show at 3:30. As fans booed and screamed, he briefly appeared to blame technical difficulties and the Chicago Police Department for his no-show; a police officer told a local newspaper that the venue faced fines of “over $10,000” for undisclosed issues. And so ended Prince’s opening night in Chicago.
Which leaves us to wonder: is Prince turning into Axl Rose? He’s in his mid-fifties; the days of doing splits and sliding across the stage on his knees are understandably in his past. His voice remains, amazingly, just as limber and powerful as ever, and he seemed nimble performing limited dance moves, but there seemed to be a huge gap between what he thought the fans wanted to see and what they actually were longing for. Prince has always been a bit eccentric, but the genius behind the music was so strong that fans were willing to look past that, to focus on what was there on the stage in front of them. But never, after twenty-five years of seeing him perform live, have I seen him seem so disconnected.
On the Musicology tour, he had played the greatest hits in full with a sense of playful fun, and he seemed genuinely moved and humbled by the massive ovations he received. I’ve seen him play three-hour sets in the early nineties that left fans exhausted and grinning from ear to ear; he is capable of being one of the most electric performers in music, instinctively knowing how to please an audience, but none of that was on display in Chicago on Monday. Not musically, and certainly not in terms of simple respect for those who paid to see him.
“I’m here because I want to be, not because I have to be,” he had said during the show, preaching the ease of love over the difficulty of hate while telling fans that they were his friends and that he loved them. “I’m going to take your mind off of all the troubles out there…and there are a lot of them,” he added, but his behavior seemed to reflect someone who doesn’t really care all that much for his fans, someone who actually added to their problems that night. So the question remains: was this just an off night, or have we lost the truly amazing, seemingly endlessly talented live performer known as Prince?