Sometimes it’s hard to review a concert. The experience is so emotional and immediate that it’s hard to put into words, and any attempt to render it on the page is of necessity reductive. Such is the dilemma I face as I try to describe Prince’s late show last night night at the Sony Centre.
These are the facts:
Prince played two sold out shows last night, scheduled for 8 and 11 PM. These “pop-up” shows were announced on Saturday and tickets went on sale Monday. Toronto was the second stop on the Hit and Run Tour, which comprises last-minute shows announced mere days in advance with tickets going on sale the day before.
Like most of my friends, I bought tickets for the second show . I gambled that the late night set would go longer, with more obscure and recent material. I was wrong on both counts. That was the 8 PM show. The late show, which started a little before 11:30, was somewhat shorter, but heavier on the hits.
This didn’t matter to me because, up to last night, I had no investment in the songs. Prince’s music was something that I enjoyed, but I wasn’t really a fan. Whether he played the classics or focused on newer material was irrelevant to me. I wanted to be entertained. And entertained I was.
The show started with the stage hidden behind a billowing purple curtain. Toronto guitarist Donna Grantis, of backing band 3rdeyegirl, implored the audience to switch off our cell phones and to thus be fully present. She promised us magic.
As the curtain fell and Prince and his musical cohorts launched into a slow burning take on the 1984 classic Let’s Go Crazy, it was clear that the purple patriarch of Paisley Park meant to keep this promise.
The show unfolded as an extended jam, with one song segueing into another. There was barely a breath between numbers. Some songs were played in full, others in fragments. A few, like Darling Nikki, were barely quoted. The whole affair was deliciously disorienting, but within minutes, the tenor of the show was obvious. There would be little room for noodling. This was a greatest hits performance, and within minutes Prince broke into Raspberry Beret and the audience was in the stratosphere.
Prince worked the crowd, switching roles with ease: he was a singer, a dancer, a cheerleader and a guitarist. Particularly memorable on the guitar front was the blues soaked medley of The Question of U, The One and Muddy Waters’ Electric Man. Prince worked his magic on six strings deftly channeling his influences, evoking Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King with his massive tone, his skillful riffing and a steady foot on the wah wah pedal.
The crowd erupted into cheering and dancing at Little Red Corvette and 1999 before being treated to an intensely emotional rendition of Nothing Compares 2 U, which leaned heavily on Sinéad O’Connor’s remake rather than on Prince’s original. This emotional high-water mark concluded the first part of the show.
The first encore started with Kiss, When Doves Cry, and Sign of the Times. Some sixteen songs were woven into an extended medley/mix, including covers of Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Nasty Girl by Vanity Six, Cool by Morris Day and the Time, and A Love Bizarre by Sheila E. A handful of audience members were invited onstage to dance. Prince asked for ladies but some dudes crashed the party, too, if only to prove that white men can’t dance.
The second and final encore began with Prince solo on the piano singing Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender. This grew into a drawn-out version of Purple Rain. Prince’s guitar skills were once again on display. His iconic solo dripped emotion as swirling beams of lights cascaded into the audience during the extended sing-a-long.
This last piece left me breathless. I can think of only a handful of live performances that have floored me this way: David Gilmour of Pink Floyd doing Comfortably Numb in 1989, Mark Knopfler performing Sultans of Swing in 1985, Steve Rothery of Marillion doing Neverland a few weeks ago. The last time I was so blown away at the Sony Centre was in 2005 when Radiohead performed Letdown for the first time since the Ok Computer tour.
Colour me purple. Colour me impressed.