MILWAUKEE After spending most of the '90s calling himself an unpronounceable symbol, Prince reclaimed his name last year. If the scattershot, Las Vegas-revue-style show he gave Thursday is any indication, however, he's still working on figuring out his musical identity.
Two weeks into his first major arena and shed tour since the name change he spent much of the last year on his Hit and Run Tour of small auditoriums and theaters Prince was still reveling in his new/old moniker. "What's my name?" he asked repeatedly; when the crowd of more than 20,000 at the Marcus Amphitheatre shouted back "Prince," he said, "Sounds good. Haven't heard that for a while."
Aside from a slew of obligatory shouts of "I love you, Milwaukee," the show was short on speeches and long on medleys, which made for a night of stunning emotional highs and confusing musical lows. One might expect a greatest-hits show from a tour called "Prince: A Celebration," but most of those hits were delivered in truncated versions, one after the other, with little opportunity to deliver the songs' full effect.
Wearing a crimson tunic, red and black pants and a dangling "NPG" pendant, Prince opened with a blast of guitar, hitting the crowd with 30 seconds of feedback and string-bending before launching into a heavy version of "Let's Go Crazy."
He followed with "Darling Nikki," another hit from his 1984 breakthrough, Purple Rain, but it was only a tease. After reminding the crowd of his new "no four-letter words" policy, he cut the song's intro short and launched into a rapid-fire medley of "Take Me With U," "Computer Blue," "Raspberry Beret" and "When You Were Mine."
While the crowd went, well, crazy for the hits, the medley approach often didn't give the songs time to build, and several times during the 130-minute show the songs were interrupted by lengthy smooth-jazz jams. "I wish he'd just once play a whole song," one fan was overheard saying, as he cut "Little Red Corvette" short to launch into "I Wanna Be Your Lover."
Backed by the six-piece NPG, a full-time dancer and four part-time backup singers, Prince is still a consummate bandleader and showman, though. He's still got his James Brown moves the splits, the one-footed twirls in place, and he led the group through often dizzying stops and starts, as when he went from a raucous "Housequake" into a version of "Ballad of Dorothy Parker" that owed more than a little to Miles Davis' early '70s funk-jazz fusion.
The show was a decidedly fan-friendly affair, as Prince asked a half-dozen women up on the stage to dance during "Housequake" and then filled the stage with audience members of both genders for the night's closer, "Kiss."
In fact, the three encores provided some of the evening's most emotionally satisfying moments, as if the regular sets had been little more than teasers for the real show. The first encore featured a version of "Purple Rain" that ended with the entire crowd singing the song's falsetto "woo-hoo-hoo" as Prince wrenched a piercing solo from his custom-designed white guitar.
And while Prince may have sworn off swearing, he's still as nasty as he wants to be, provocatively caressing himself underneath his tunic during encore versions of "Do Me Baby" and "Scandalous." Equal parts lust and love, the songs showcased Prince at his best uncanny musicianship, soaring vocals, and a blurring of the lines between sexuality and spirituality.
"Love God, love life, lovesexy and we outta here," he said, leaving the stage for good.
"Damn," said a man as he walked out. "We were just getting warmed up."