Prince & the New Power Generation
Reviewed: Tuesday, May 4, 2004
Where: Kemper Arena
Audience: 13,000 (approx.)
The name of this Prince tour is also the name of the latest Prince album,”Musicology,” which implies that somebody’s going to get schooled.
Now on the downward slope of his 40s (he turns 46 next month) and a freshly minted member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Prince is up to bigger, more important things than cat fights with the recording industry. These days, his mission is to show the world that the new generation of pop stars is addicted to sonic cosmetics and aural enhancers like Pro-Tools, lip-syncing, pitch-correction and canned loops of digital music - steroids for the music illiterati.
On the other hand, he is preaching, his generation is all about skills and fundamentals and finesse and doing it all live, organically and impromptu - the old-school way. “Musicology” the album isn’t necessarily his best high-heeled foot forward in the war against pseudo-stardom, but the “Musicology” tour certainly is.
For more than two hours Tuesday night at Kemper Arena, Prince and his herculean band, the New Power Generation, whipped a big, excited crowd into a heady mix of nostalgia and delirium. He may have been lecturing to the choir about the sins of the younger generation - the average patron’s age this evening seemed about 35 or so - but that was irrelevant. Prince isn’t seeking younger converts; he’s trying to preserve his large, devoted base.
The stage this evening was a “round” that was really two intersecting runways in the shape of an X (or a cross, if you’re religiously inclined). On one leg of the X arose a slim, metallic arch that also looked like a huge tuning fork. Either way, its significance or symbolism wasn’t obvious.
The layout of the stage gave Prince a chance to share some face time with the crowds up close on all sides of the arena, a decent tradeoff considering the sound in the most expensive seats wasn’t great. Many of those seats were directly under the huge bank of speakers that hung over the stage. From Row 8 on the north side, Prince’s vocals felt a little blurry all night.
“Musicology” has been called both a farewell and a comeback tour for Prince. The “comeback” thing is stupid: Tuesday’s show was Prince’s fourth in Kansas City since January 1998, which means he has performed here over the past six years more than Sting, Celine Dion and U2 combined (”Come back again” is more like it.). The “farewell” theme is about his old music, which he is, supposedly, trying to retire slowly.
There may be something to that: He played lots of old stuff, but mostly snippets and medleys of songs (plus full versions of four songs from the new album). The show lasted a hair over two hours, and, for the most part, Prince managed to keep the atmosphere somewhere between percolating and full-boil. The acoustic set in the middle, where Prince sat on a stool and spun slowly like a 45 record on a hi-fi spindle, wasn’t as entertaining as it was enlightening:
For one, he plays a great acoustic guitar, whether he’s strumming a pop tune or cranking out a Delta blues number. Second, stripped and shorn of all the NPG brass and sass, Prince’s songs were exposed as melodic, well-crafted compositions that live and breath on their own. One of the best of those was “Raspberry Beret,” during which Prince stopped to chide “the brothers” who weren’t warming up to the “country” version of the song. (They need to hear the Derailers’ version.)
The highlights were legion: The show opened with the four overhead big screens showing a replay of Alicia Keys’ induction speech at the Hall of Fame - “there are many kings ... there is only one Prince” - and, after a tight version of “Musicology,” came parts of four songs from “Purple Rain”: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die for You,” a reconstructed jazz-funk version of “When Doves Cry” and then “Baby I’m a Star.”
The crowd was loud and friendly and energetic all night long. Asked to sing along, they did. Asked to sing along louder, they did. They boogied and clapped and waved their arms and lighted lighters at the right moments, too.
They also appreciated Prince’s whirlwind tour of his many musical affinities: for the blues, soul, gospel, R&B and funk. The show included covers or allusions to new stars (OutKast’s “I Love the Way You Move”) and old (what sounded like the O’Jays’ “I Just Want to Satisfy You”). The bristling cover of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” sung by keyboardist Chance Howard, was also a hit and the perfect lead-in to the hyper-funky version of “Kiss,” which led right into “Take Me With You.” They punctuated that with a line from the Time’s “The Walk”: “We don’t like New Wave!”
The night ended with an epic gospel-funk version of “Purple Rain,” which featured Prince in a blood-orange suit and his signature purple/hyroglyph guitar. After the song was over and the stage was empty, and the amps barely hummed the final guitar/keyboard chords and smoke was still rising around the drums and amps, most of the crowd remained standing and cheering, waiting for a sign that this great party was meant to last. It wasn’t. School was out.
Musicology, Let’s Go Crazy, I Would Die for You, When Doves Cry, Baby I’m a Star, Shhh, DMSR/I Like the Way You Move, I Feel for You, Controversy. Interlude. Acoustic set: Little Red Corvette, Cream, Raspberry Beret/Jailhouse Rock, I Just Want to Satisfy You, Telemarketer Blues, On the Couch, The Glamorous Life, Alphabet St., Sometimes It Snows in April. Band returns: 7, Sign O’ the Times, Dear Mr. Man, You Got the Look, Life O’ the Party, Soul Man, Kiss, Take Me With You. Encore: Purple Rain.