I'm still trying to come up with an answer to “How was Prince?,” a question at least twenty people have asked me since leaving his 8 p.m. show at DNA Lounge last night. My mom, in particular, was just excited to recognize the name of someone I was writing about, but strangers too — people on Twitter, the homeless guy lingering outside the club, servers at the restaurant where my brother cooks, where I went after the show to decompress — everyone wanted to know what was it like, what did he play, was it worth $250 a ticket?
Prince is a master at the art of being Prince, and he gave us a two-hour orgy of his virtuosity, his face in a constant state of ecstasy: eyes closed and lips slightly open, occasionally wiping his mouth after a particularly satisfying guitar solo. He teased throughout the show, asking coyly, “Can I play my guitar?,” sending a come-hither smile to the crowd in the balcony, and even only playing snippets of his hits. Sometimes he wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, making his electric guitar with painted flames shiver in blues tones; at the piano he recalled a young Stevie Wonder, eyes closed and head tilted back as his falsetto gracefully floated into the mic. And he was also exactly as I remembered him, an Eighties pop star prancing around in puffy shirts and breaking hearts in Purple Rain.
Seriously, he looked exactly the same.
It was impossible to find space to take notes in the sardine-packed club, and like much of the crowd, I couldn’t name most of the songs Prince played during the first half of the set. But Prince and his 3rd Eye Girl band put on a loud, raucous, dirty, sexy, funky rock show with tons of solos and breakdowns and nods to American Sixties rock. Covers included an R&B rendition of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells, “Let’s Go” by The Cars, an instrumental of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles, and so many fragments of classic Jimi riffs that I lost count. Prince sat down at the piano, light spilling around him like a halo, and pounded out a version of “Purple Rain” that mostly indulged fans in the chorus and then went on various jams in between. For his encore, he played a thirty-minute melody packed mostly with hits — “When Doves Cry,” “Pop Life,” “I Would Die 4 U” — which felt a bit like him placating an audience ravenous for familiar songs.
Which leads me to the crowd. The last time Prince played the Bay, it was to an intimate 20,000-person crowd at Oracle Arena, so this opportunity to see him at a 900 capacity club brought out the rich, the crazy, and the lucky few like me who got a comped ticket. There was a sense of entitlement in the thick air, a desperation to be as close as possible to Prince, to capture the brightest mental image possible since no cameras were allowed in the venue. It kind of ruined Prince’s attempt to deliver a high-energy rock show — there was no room to dance in the pit or react much more than squeeze one arm up through a narrow space in between people and point to the stage.
How was Prince? Well, considering the burden and pressure of simply being Prince, he managed it quite well.