NEW YORK — The first rule when you’re about to drop $75 to $150 on a concert ticket should be “Do your research.” Anyone who expected a straightforward greatest-hits retrospective from Prince at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall Tuesday night will have to write their pricey ticket off as a fine for laziness. After all, any artist who is as unpredictable as Prince has historically been should warrant no less than a quick Google search for set lists.
Therein, the scientific fan would find that “Little Red Corvette” and “When Doves Cry” aren’t bloody likely. Rather, much of the One Nite Alone Tour draws from Prince’s most recent public release, The Rainbow Children, an occasional obscurity, a few less-obvious oldies such as “When You Were Mine,” and some jammed-out covers like the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” and Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know.” The result is a show mostly tailored for current fans of the man’s music, not just his legend.
The two-hour set began as the album begins, with a distorted spoken word leading into the title track, a jazzy battle cry for the new Prince “concept,” a continuation of the New Power Generation idea or the Controversy-era call, repositioned as the reproduction of the New Breed Leader (“Stand up, organize!”).
From out of the shadows, Prince emerged to pose the question: “Is it better to give than to receive?” Teasing an audience member that he should “give up that front row seat to that brother back there,” he began an old-school guitar solo, rousing fans completely before pushing them into their seats for a couple of slow numbers. A high-pitched cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You” included an improvised ending that Joni herself wouldn’t recognize. An appropriately titled Rainbow Children tune, “Mellow,” found Prince milking the audience with his trademark spins and fancy footwork while he got sexy with the mic stand.
“All right, everybody on your feet,” he commanded afterward. “Let’s exercise.” But only a few funky notes into “1 + 1 +1 is 3″ he cut the song, calling for the house lights, and chided: “What is this, a discotheque? This is a respectable place. Y’all be acting the fool up here … What’s wrong with y’all?” Egged on by the crowd, he asked, “Are you trying to be funky up in here? Do you know who I am?” warning, “If you try to take me there I will go there.” Sliding into “Love Rollercoaster,” the band then chilled into the smooth soul of “The Other Side of the Pillow,” an old rarity from the massive Crystal Ball set, which highlighted Greg Boyer on trombone (with a mute cup, or, as Prince so eloquently put it, a “roto rooter thing on it”).
Radio station names scrolled on the screen behind him as he derided corporate ownership, charging, “Not one of those owners can tap their foot on the two and four.” Declaring the creation of fictional station WNPG, he soon turned back to the keyboards for “Strange Relationship” then strapped the guitar on again as legendary James Brown/P-Funk saxophonist Maceo Parker wailed on “Pass the Peas.”
Rapper Q-Tip, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest, showed up, but once he made his way up to the mic he didn’t seem to have much to contribute, and he exited after only a couple of minutes.
As Prince went into “Family Name,” a controversial song about slavery and ancestry, a segregationist statement by Abraham Lincoln flashed across the screen. He asked audience members their names, re-dubbing them such things as “Outlaw.” The set quickly veered away from such seriousness, wrapping up with a run of “Take Me With You” into “Raspberry Beret” into a lengthy and energetic Santana jam, during which a woman from the audience took to the stage, dancing up a storm.
When Prince returned, he did so alone, moving to his keyboards in virtual darkness. The piercing falsetto and increasingly intense key banging of “Adore” moved audience members to cry out, though they remained firmly planted in their seats, giggling at the play-acting of a scene with an unseen lover that was riffed off of the song’s original lyrics: “U could burn up my clothes… Smash up my ride… Well, maybe not the ride.”
The “Unplugged”-esque session quickly flipped the from-me-to-you nod to his fans into a sing-along show of love back at the artist during “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and through “Do Me, Baby,” with the crowd hitting a high note so sharply Prince jumped back from the keyboard and quit, claiming “Scared of y’all!” The acoustic encore rounded out with “Condition of the Heart,” “Diamonds and Pearls” and “The Beautiful Ones.” The band reclaimed its instruments for an impromptu “Purple Rain” and, finally, “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
The second and last encore found Prince continuing on the keyboards with band accompaniment for a final medley that spanned many of the pre-Emancipation albums. In a timely return to the live repertoire, the 1999 Side 3 song “Free” enjoyed a one-verse exposure before segueing into a verse of “Starfish and Coffee,” then a truncated “Sometimes It Snows in April” and a bit of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.”
Not content to “leave it there,” Prince explained, “In these turbulent times, this is the song for me,” which led into a fully jammed out “Anna Stesia.” A crowd-heavy “Love is God/ God is love/ Girls and boys love God above” chant and another “Reproduction of the New Breed Leader” marked the end of the show.
Read about all of the shows we’ve recently covered in Tour Reports.