A sign in the crowd read, "I SOLD MY GUITARS SO I COULD TAKE MY MOTHER TO SEE PRINCE." It was, like much of the reaction leading up to Prince's show at the Roseland Theater Sunday night, a bit of a mixed message. Last month, when Soul'd Out Productions announced that the Purple One himself would indeed perform at the 1,400-capacity venue, the response online was a simultaneous eruption of both elation and outrage: Elation that Prince—arguably the second most important artist of the '80s, inarguably one of the greatest musical minds of the late 20th century—was playing Portland at all, much less in such an intimate setting; outrage over the fact that ticket prices started at $175. That person standing next to their mother waving that sign probably only wanted to express to how much they were willing to give up in order worship at the altar of their idol. But should anyone ever be forced to part with their worldly possessions just to afford a concert—particularly one by a notoriously mercurial performer who wouldn't even allow fans to take photos and bring home a small memory of what they paid for? The subtext spoke for a lot of the temporarily broke audience. It said, "This better be worth it."
So, then: Was it?
Well, that depends on your expectations. If you thought $200 would buy you a greatest hits set, then the night peaked early. At about 11:40 pm, after tantalizing the late-show audience as they filed in with a microphone and a guitar perched at the lip of the stage, the lights lowered, the curtains drew back (though not before a voice over the speakers warned not to take pictures), and there he was: All 5-foot-something of him, a few odd creases lining his otherwise immaculately preserved 54-year-old face and sporting a short Afro basketball fans might refer to as "the young Kobe." Over monstrous chords from his three-piece, all-female backing band, he sauntered forward, whipped off his overcoat—revealing a black-and-white spandex shirt and rectangular neckpiece—picked up the guitar and joined in on what was revealed to be a lurching, chopped-and-screwed mutation of 1984's "Let's Go Crazy." It sounded nothing like the synth-gospel original, but it didn't matter: Once the overwhelmed crowd realized what it was hearing, it sang along with a mix of orgiastic, rafter-rattling glee and sheer, slack-jawed awe.
It would be an hour and a half before he'd play anything else recognizable to those with only Purple Rain and The Very Best of Prince in their iPods. Between songs, you could look up at the balcony—where people had spent $300 for the luxury of "VIP seating"—and see the disappointment wash over their faces every time the next performance failed to be "1999" or "Little Red Corvette" or "Diamonds and Pearls."
For everyone else—those who know Prince will never be a jukebox, no matter how much money you stuff into him—just standing within feet of one of pop's truest geniuses seemed worth sacrificing hot meals for a month in order to afford the opportunity. Besides, it's not like this was the soft-jazz Prince of the late '90s. In the last few years, he's fallen back in love with the guitar and, subsequently, the hard, heavy funk that reared its fire-breathing head at points in his early career. Stripping his usual R&B orchestra down to rock-band size, the purpose of this West Coast club tour—and the songs he's recently leaked featuring his newly assembled supporting trio, 3rd Eye Girl—is for Prince to reintroduce himself as a God of Thunder, and he hardly separated from his axe the entire set, never going more than a few seconds, seemingly, without unleashing a skin-breaking solo.
It was such a rare, wild treat that the actual setlist is beside the point. For the record, it included new songs (the Zeppelin-y stomper "Plectrum Electrum"; the plucky "Screwdriver," which he introduced by asking, "Who's ready for some lip synching?!"), old songs (1979's "Bambi," ground zero for the funk-rock persona he's now revisiting), deep cuts (the great "Raspberry Beret" B-side "She's Always In My Hair," stretched into a double-digit-length psych-jam) and, weirdly, a cover of "Play That Funky Music." All of it was loud, raw and, for the setting, disproportionately sized. There were a few breaks in the bombast: A guest appearance from his former backing singer, Portland's own Liv Warfield, yielded a soulful, sultry cover of India Arie's "Brown Skin.' And he brought things down to a smolder for a slow, alluring ballad (which, keeping with Rose City tradition, the crowd talked over), lit by both actual candles and images of candles on the LED screen behind him. But those were meager respites. For the majority of the evening, the most eclectic, dynamic songwriter of the last 30-plus years immolated his famed Minneapolis sound in a fireball of Hendrixian guitar shrapnel, and it was thrilling to watch him set it ablaze.
Did the barrage of notes and pained-face riffing get a bit tiresome? Of course. A side effect of having your face melted off is that, eventually, it's going to go numb. But there's a reason Prince is a bit insecure about proving his instrumental skills: Like his old rival Michael Jackson, he's such a preternaturally gifted performer his supreme musicianship often gets overlooked. No matter how wanky things got, Prince himself was never less than captivating. He is one of music's everlasting enigmas—even Bob Dylan appears more knowable—but shrinking a superstar to fit inside the Roseland is going to force some intimacy. He didn't talk much, instead communicating through smirks and suggestive glances. He shared at least one human moment, cracking himself up with the first line of the improvisatory "Beggin' Woman Blues": "I got a cross-eyed woman…" Toward the end, he was loosened up enough to briefly hand his beloved guitar over to the front row—a peace offering, perhaps, for his draconian photography rules. You couldn't leave saying you knew Prince any better, but you could certainly say you spent some time with him.
After a second encore of "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"—the only other "hit" to make it into the set, again narcotized beyond recognition—the half-dazed, half bliss-drunk crowd stuck around, applauding and hooting and stomping long after the house lights went up and the roadies began breaking the stage down. Maybe they didn't want to believe the show was already over, clocking in shy of two hours. Maybe they heard the early show ended with a tear-jerking rendition of "Purple Rain" and hoped for the same. And maybe some were staying put in protest. Maybe they felt they hadn't received their money's worth, and refused to leave without hearing "Kiss" or "When Doves Cry" or, shit, even "Batdance." Here's the truth, though: If you felt ripped off by what Prince gave you, then frankly, you probably shouldn't have been there to begin with.
Kenny Fresh of FRSH SLCTS attended both the 8 pm and 11:30 pm shows. Here are some of his observations:
— He played the piano on a few songs during this set, but the piano was placed so far stage-left that anyone on that side of the venue couldn't see him at all during those parts. I think they realized this after the fact, and that's why he stayed on guitar for the whole second show—and also why no "Purple Rain" finale for the late set.
— When he played "She's Always In My Hair" (a B-side from his prime/classic years, still a huge hit for most Prince fans), he motioned for the crowd to sing the chorus and they completely left him hanging with barely anyone knowing the words. So, at the late show, he made it a point to play that song for like 10-15 minutes straight, breaking down each and every part and doing the chorus sing-along style. Portland knows that song now.
— The first set was much more straightforward, pretty by-the-books for the rest of the 3rd Eye Girl dates so far, nothing out of the ordinary. But the late set got all the goods: the jam sessions, the improvised blues song, the Liv Warfield guest appearances—all the magic.
— By the way, he was definitely mocking/poking fun at how white the crowd was with that "Play That Funky Music" cover. You could tell he started it as a joke but saw how into it the crowd was, so he kept going with it while laughing at/with us the whole time. Classic Prince stage humor/inside joke-with-the-band style.