At Rogers Arena on Friday, December 16
Quick, now: name Prince’s last Top 40 hit. No fair checking Wikipedia. Can't do it? Neither can I, but I’m pretty sure it was something from about 15 years ago. That Prince is still headlining arenas a decade and a half later isn’t surprising: it takes a building the size of a hockey rink to contain an ego that big.
Anyone who can put on the kind of show the Purple One turned in at Rogers Arena on Friday night has earned the right to be a little cocky, though. At 53, Prince performed with the energy of a man at least 20 years younger, and only he could get away with wearing rhinestone-spangled gold pants and mascara while still somehow maintaining his dignity.
Over the course of a show that started almost an hour late and went on for just over two hours, the Minneapolis-born artist formerly known as an unpronounceable glyph, leading his band the New Power Generation, delivered a refresher course in Prince 101, touching on most of the hits that made him an icon. And I say “touching on” because often he would give the crowd little more than a verse and a chorus before moving along to another song. While this was surely frustrating for anyone who had come hoping to hear “When Doves Cry” or “Sign o’ the Times” in their entirety, the truncation of some songs allowed for the expansion of others. “Let’s Go Crazy”, for example, was mashed up with “Delirious” and featured some fine saxophone work by long-time James Brown sideman Maceo Parker.
Parker also lent a hand on a medley that somehow found common ground between Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People”, the Beatles’ “Come Together”, Prince’s own “Alphabet Street”, and the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’”. That it all flowed together seamlessly is testament to both the band’s proficiency and to its frontman’s ability to take elements from funk, rock, soul, and pop and make them his own.
Oh, and did I mention that he can play the guitar like a motherfucker? The dude pulls off fluid and technically jaw-dropping six-string leads with the amount of effort most of us put into flossing our teeth, but it never feels gratuitous. Prince does everything for a reason, and that includes his instrumental work. A searing guitar solo actually provided “Purple Rain” with its emotional payoff, its opening notes punctuated by fusillades of purple (of course) confetti. The effect was something like a simultaneous sonic and visual orgasm, after which everyone in the room would no doubt have gone home fully satiated. It was the second song of the night.
Prince was so fully the focus of the concert that any momentary absence on his part left a palpable void. This was the case when his three backing singers, led by the vocal dynamo Shelby Johnson, gave the full gospel treatment to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”. There might have been some significance in the choice to perform that particular number in its author’s home town, but there’s a good chance it went deeper than that. McLachlan’s inspiration for the song was the death of Jonathan Melvoin, the brother of Prince’s former Revolution bandmates Susannah and Wendy Melvoin. (Mind you, most of the audience probably just knows “Angel” as that song from the SPCA commercial that always makes them weep like babies.)
Johnson got another turn in the spotlight when she sang “Nothing Compares 2 U” as a ludicrously over-the-top (by which I mean totally awesome) duet with Prince. That was during the first encore, before which the diminutive pop legend insisted that the band couldn't possibly continue because they had no hits left to play—and then launched into “Kiss”.
I could go on, but there’s not really much point listing every song Prince and the NPG played (or didn’t play; no “Little Red Corvette”!). Suffice it to say that no one left Rogers Arena thinking that Prince’s place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Sly Stone isn’t well-earned.