For all his unknowable aloofness, Prince’s raison d’etre boils down to the three word refrain of one of his signature songs: “Let’s go crazy.” No matter what genre he is bending (rock, funk, R&B, jazz, hip-hop) or what his current lyrical fixations are, Prince’s music always has been about letting go of inhibitions. On Wednesday night (December 29), the 52-year-old music legend spent a little over two hours on stage at New York City’s Madison Square Garden strutting, dancing and shredding through the most manic moments of his massive back catalog, unburdened by anything other than the need to move some hips and shake some asses.
Prince’s current “Welcome 2 America” tour (which only has one more date — a final MSG show in January) has featured an ever-evolving set list that hits many of the artist’s signature 1999 and Purple Rain high notes with a healthy dose of more recent work (and the occasional deep cut) mixed in. Maybe it was the fact that much of New York was still frozen (and thus needed a little heat), or perhaps Prince just wanted to get a jump on New Year’s Eve celebrations early, but Wednesday night’s show did not set foot in this century (the “newest” song Prince busted out was “Cream,” which is a single from 1991), nor did it take much time to catch its breath (despite a pair of ballads and a solo piano medley, Prince stuck mostly to uptempo jams).
Following stout sets by opening acts Mint Condition and Janelle Monae (the latter proving to be an especially adroit performer on an extra-lively rendition of “Sincerely, Jane”), Prince opened the show on a moody note, taking a seat behind a grand piano for a run through “The Beautiful Ones” (from Purple Rain). Accompanied by a ballet dancer who glided across the giant, glowing, glyph-shaped stage, it began the featured part of the evening on an intense, sensual note. But once Prince stood up, he rarely slowed down again, launching into an extra-jumpy version of “Let’s Go Crazy” that gave way to an adrenalized “Delirious.” Before anybody could grab a breath, “1999” was already washing over the sold-out Garden, inspiring manic dance moves and shouts of pure jubilation.
Prince continued on that breakneck pace, constantly dancing around the stage, playing to all areas of the crowd, pausing to whip off guitar solos and regularly stepping away from the microphone to let the fans shout along the choruses to “Little Red Corvette,” “Raspberry Beret” and “Kiss.” When Prince did deviate from the all-singles-all-the-time route, he was clearly playing to the hardcores, dropping in “Uptown” (from Dirty Mind), a cover of the Time’s “Cool” and the little-loved Graffiti Bridge track “The Question of U.” The latter was especially impressive, as Prince took the song’s pedestrian groove and added a healthy dose of rocked-up sexual danger. For a song that rarely sees the light of day, it was fantastically compelling.
Following a triumphant run through “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (with an assist from Monae), Prince re-emerged from a set break for another sit behind the piano. This time, he pounded his way through a medley of tracks both signature (“I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”) and obscure (“Condition of the Heart,” from 1985’s Around the World in a Day, is as deep as deep cuts get). When he stood up again for the final song (a cover of the Time’s “Jungle Love,” he invited a number of people on stage to dance and share the microphone (including Cyndi Lauper, whose otherworldly wail matched the song’s rhythmic intensity perfectly). When the lights came up, the guests were still dancing even though Prince had already been whisked backstage. Such is the power of Prince: With songs as funky and fresh as that, the party doesn’t ever stop.