What does Prince's Bat-Signal look like? Does it slice a royal-purple beam of light through the Gotham City clouds? Is it shaped like a phallus? Does it shout Waaaaaaaah!!! like Prince himself during "Gett Off"?
Perhaps it does, because he heard and heeded it. As noted in this space two weeks ago, the Great Super Bowl Rogue Breast Disaster of 2004 ignited firestorms of pointless bickering about obscenity and decency and American Moral Values. Ignore this tripe and focus on the real issue: It was the least sexy stunt to ever occur on television (narrowly beating out the Tet Offensive), a hugely public symptom of our country's complete lack of sensuality.
"We don't know how to be sexy anymore," this column childishly whined in paraphrase. "Only Prince, the perfect marriage of poppy artistic genius and pure undistilled lust, can save us now."
And thus did the Prince Bat-Signal whoosh across the sky, and thus did Prince, as he sat hand-milking a field of goats on a mountainside in Vienna, heed its siren call and schedule a midnight show at the Fillmore on Valentine's Day.
Sweet Jesus, it's time to Gett Off.
It's also time to pay up. A mere $99 a ticket, with unavoidable Ticketmaster service charges to boot, a more robust and thorough pounding than anything Darling Nikki ever enjoyed. But no matter: Besides providing manna from heaven for procrastinating V-Day planners, this was an Event, a front-row seat at Prince's glorious comeback. First the Grammys, then the Fillmore, then the world, again.
The music itself? Ehhhh. Five out of ten. Would've made a fabulous Wednesday night bargain showcase at Yoshi's.
The show itself? We were there, dude.
Advertised start time: midnight. Actual start time: 12:40, right on schedule. The stage: tastefully decorated in some sorta Japanese koi garden style. Horn section: badass (Maceo Parker on sax, yo!), all busting out extended solos right from the get-go, followed by a guitar solo by His Purpleness himself.
Prince plays guitar with the ease and studied nonchalance with which you put on your pants. Picture that final flourish of "Let's Go Crazy" -- Steve Vai-caliber shredding shit -- rendered live by America's preeminent rockstar sex symbol: a short, scrawny dude from Minneapolis who wears outfits exclusively from the Deion Sanders Executive Collection.
But ah, evoking "Let's Go Crazy" is not nearly the same as playing "Let's Go Crazy." Prince is on a different tip now, masterminding an admittedly world-destroyingly great jazz-funk big band as if he's trying to outdo Brian Wilson himself -- Heavy Pet Sounds. His favorite onstage phrase is "On the one!" and the band dutifully whacks to a full stop on the one-beat, leaving Prince in silence to pose or toss out one-liners like "Somebody look at these shoes!"
Let's just say it: It's a jam band. Extended grooves, multiple ego-stroking solos, merry medleys -- "Love Rollercoaster," "Brick House," "No Diggity," etc. And nary a sidelong glance at "When Doves Cry" or "1999." C'mon, dude, we'll settle for "Batdance."
Prince diehards have sneered at this complaint for years -- he's miles beyond all those cheesy pop tunes, he's an artist, let the man evolve. "Just play the hits!" is indeed an incredibly uncool thing to yell at a rock show, but all this self-indulgent jazzy noodling, however graceful and technically flawless, gets awfully frustrating at two in the morning when you know this dude could unload a two-hour Vegas-style nostalgic pop radio spectacle so unspeakably brilliant it could stop time.
So we take what Prince condescends to throw at us: a long, slow drag off the blunt that is "Controversy," with its joyous breakdown chant of "People call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black or white/I wish there were no rules. " The pimp-slapping horn bursts of "I Feel For You" -- dat-dat-dat-dat, dat-dat, dat, dat-dat-dat-dat -- brought us right to the doorstep of that very utopia. And eccentric egotist though he might be, Prince still makes a fabulous circus ringleader, dropping goofy one-liners ("I am here") and hauling random backup dancers onstage, including a hilariously stuffy bank manager type who danced like the token dumbass honky in a Dr. Dre video.
Prince is still playing to the rafters, but on his terms, at his pace, which means long slogs through New Age smooth jazz balladry wherein he recites the 14th Amendment and insists, "You can still be cool and love God," a sly acknowledgment of those fantastic going-door-to-door-as-a-Jehovah's-Witness rumors. The band kills when it wants to, and that mixture of superior musicianship, still-unbridled sex appeal, star power and, yes, nostalgic longing ensured that most folks stumbled out of the Fillmore at 2:30 a.m. reasonably fulfilled, if somewhat bewildered and really tired.
But wait! A die-hard contingent near the front of the stage shrieks, stomps, and refuses to leave, and here comes Prince and the band again, the ultrarare triple encore, a special treat for the ultrafaithful. Is it too late to truly Go Crazy?
Evidently so: The horn section hurriedly blasts through the old New Orleans-y gospel standard "Down by the Riverside" as Prince thwacks random bandmates in the ass with a towel. Four minutes pass; they stumble back offstage. The show's over.
That's your encore, your gift for true believers?
"At least we saw him," some guy reasons as we exit. "We can say we saw Prince."
"Does it even matter we didn't recognize any of his songs?" his friend adds.
Maybe not. Saying you saw Prince at midnight on Valentine's Day delivers a righteous visceral thrill, even if between five and ten shows in the Bay Area alone -- Drive-By Truckers at Bottom of the Hill, Affro-Musika at Ashkenaz -- were most probably more satisfying musically. The bragging rights rung in our ears long after the smooth jazz effluvia had floated away. We got what we paid for: An Event and a celebrity-fueled thrill, waving at Puff Daddy in one of the Fillmore's balconies, looking severely pleased and awfully well-rounded for a recent marathon runner. Kinda like Prince himself: fat and happy, still the Man, but a little bored and a little more boring. He could easily save us from our own unsexiness if he truly wanted to. For now, reading from the Constitution will have to do. -- Rob Harvilla
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