NEW YORK — Prince hasn’t had a hit single in more than 15 years and has gone even longer without a legitimate hit album. And at 52 — after all those years of splits, spins and pivots in high heels on hard stages — he can’t dance like he used to.
But he can still sing and play guitar, he’s got a band as tightly drilled as the Special Forces, and most of all, he’s got a plush featherbed of hits. And that’s how he’s managed to fill five New York-area arena shows over the course of six weeks on his Welcome 2 America Tour : by promising — and finally delivering — the hits that his fans want. His show at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night was certainly a crowd-pleaser.
See, Prince used to mess with his audience’s expectations so flagrantly, it verged on self-sabotage. He followed Purple Rain with the fan-confounding Around the World in a Day. He gave hits like “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Manic Monday” to other artists. During stadium concerts at the peak of his popularity, he’d play “Little Red Corvette” for 45 seconds and vamp on an unreleased song for eight minutes. Even his hit-driven 2004 tour was way too heavy on unspectacular, then-new songs.
Tuesday night’s show had very little of that — although it did start off with him playing annoying snippets of those cherished hits like an obnoxious dude repeatedly hitting fast-forward on a CD. But after that, it was a lush, two-hour-long dive into his golden era.
There were mega-hits (“Kiss,” “Take Me With U,” “Raspberry Beret,” “U Got the Look,” “Purple Rain,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “1999”); mezzanine hits (“Delirious,” “Controversy,” “Let’s Work,” “Anotherloverholenyohead,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend”); falsetto-dripping slow jams crammed together in the second encore (“Insatiable,” “Scandalous” and “Adore,” which are basically the same song); and a few curveballs for the die-hard fans (“She’s Always in My Hair,” plus two songs he wrote for others: Sheila E’s “A Love Bizarre” and the Time’s “Cool”). He didn’t play all of the songs in their entirety, but he played most of a lot of them.
There were still a lot he left out: “When Doves Cry,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Diamonds and Pearls” and “When U Were Mine,” to name just a few. He hardly played anything from the past 15 years.
And he’s still weird. He played the first half of the show wearing a shirt with his own face on it. He made two references to getting his picture taken even though the ushers individually warned audience members not to take any. He jumped on, lay on and even dry-humped a purple grand piano several times but played it for only about two minutes. He repeatedly held his mic to Maceo Parker’s saxophone, even though it had its own. He was nearly upstaged by a hapless stagehand who spent several minutes crawling around the stage, brushing off (by hand!) the purple confetti that earlier had rained down on the crowd. He brought a girl onstage from the audience and serenaded her tenderly with the bitter “I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore.” He heaped praise on opening act Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings but hurried them off the stage after they joined him for “A Love Bizarre.” He even brought a girl onstage from the audience and serenaded her tenderly with the bitter “I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore” — a girl who apparently was “Gossip Girl” star Leighton Meester, according to Spin.com.
Prince has promised to shuffle the set for every night of the tour, and while that kept things fresh, it did make for some uneven pacing. The band missed a couple of cues (prompting evil glares from their boss), and it’s hard to say if there were three or four encores, as the musicians followed Prince offstage at one point only to come back seconds later. But the energy peaked as the evening drew to a close.
He brought a couple dozen audience members — including Jimmy Fallon, ?uestlove, Sharon Jones and a few Dap Kings — onstage for “Baby I’m a Star.” (Donald Trump and Madonna were also reportedly in the audience — Prince made an obscure joke about the latter.) And he milked the evening for all it was worth: The last encore saw the band roaring through “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Delirious” and “1999,” and at 10:55, as they were reaching the end of “Peach,” Prince pretended to look at his watch (going past 11 p.m. usually means overtime pay for venue staff at the artist’s expense), and launched into another three or so minutes of soloing. He then threw his Telecaster into the crowd, thanked New York one last time, and left the stage — this time, for good.
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