Five Observations About Prince's SXSW Gig

[caption id="attachment_69540" align="alignnone" width="640"]The Prince Marquee. Photo: John Sciulli/Getty Images The Prince Marquee. Photo: John Sciulli/Getty Images[/caption]

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Prince has been keeping it intimate lately, with a string of shows at tiny-capacity venues like the Sayers Club in Los Angeles and the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in his hometown of Minneapolis. This past weekend, he brought his club-show experience to SXSW for what may have been Saturday night’s hottest ticket -- a three-hour performance at La Zona Rosa with an opening set by A Tribe Called Quest. As his crew prepared to exit the stage, Q-Tip himself wiped down the floor to make sure that it was dry and ready for the high-heeled purple royalty who was about to perform because everybody knows how special a Prince club show is. Here are five observations we had about his Royal Purpleness.

1. He Can Still Dance

The second question that your friends might ask you the day after you saw Prince, after “how was it,” is “How did he look?” Prince looked pretty great for a dude in his mid-fifties. And more importantly, he could still move. There were extended dance breaks in his songs, built in so he could shuffle around and show off exactly how much rhythm he still has. He wore high heels and changed his outfit a number of times, and he was always moving. He always looked impressive doing it, too.

2. He Doesn't Want You to Take His Picture

Prince was famously quoted last year declaring that “the Internet is dead,” which reflects not just a disconnect from common reality, but an admission that Prince does not need to experience reality the way that the rest of us do. Declaring the Internet “dead” did little to hurt his bottom line (no one is certain what he was paid for his SXSW experience, but speculation puts it in the neighborhood of a cool million), and Prince doesn’t need to use a computer. If Prince wants to know something, he can just pay somebody to hang around him ready to google that shit for him at a moment’s notice. His disconnect from the reality of life for us commoners extends to cell phone usage, too. Despite performing at a show sponsored by a company that paid him to promote its new phones (the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Samsung Galaxy Camera) Prince banned the usage of cell phones during his set, to make sure that no one took his photo. The result was a crowd who kept their phones dark and in their pockets.

As anyone who’s been to a show since the dawn of the smartphone era can tell you, that never happens. Every show is full of people with iPhones, iPads, totally awesome Samsung products, sometimes even whole fucking laptops – taking photos, tweeting, texting their friends about what an awesome time they’re having when they’re looking away from their phones, etc. But not at Prince’s show. At Prince’s show, you’re on his clock. Yeah, some people risked ejection to snag the occasional Instagram shot, or even managed to sneak a YouTube-ready video clip, but for the vast majority of the audience, this was a real thing happening live before them, to be experienced in real time and shared only when it was finished, and only then from memory. It may have been the most fully-engaged and present a SXSW audience was all week – all because of his aversion to cameras, the Internet, and this modern age. Which he is apparently very successful at enforcing, so who exactly is it that’s out of touch with reality?

[caption id="attachment_69536" align="alignnone" width="640"]Prince performs at SXSW 2013. Photo: John Sciulli/Getty Images Prince performs at SXSW 2013. Photo: John Sciulli/Getty Images[/caption]

3. He Plays What He Wants

Speaking of being out of touch with the common fan, here is something else to know about a Prince club show: He is aware that you love his wide array of hits (a whopping 50 songs he’s recorded have placed on the Billboard Top 100 chart), but he is not particularly interested in playing them for you. Or sometimes he is, but he will be the judge of that, thank you. On Saturday night, he played more covers (5) than he did hit Prince singles (3). He also dropped into his set a trio of songs he wrote for other artists – “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” from Morris Day & The Time, and “The Glamorous Life” from Sheila E. – and generally seemed mostly interested in giving audiences exactly what he wanted.

Which isn’t to say that the show was self-indulgent; not really. He did deliver “1999” as the second song out the gate, and he closed out his first set with a version of “Purple Rain” that served as a reminder that Prince wrote at least one song as great as anyone else ever did.

4. Dude Never Gets Tired

Part of that explosion of Prince’s id includes the fact that he likes to stay up late. It’s sincerely refreshing, actually -- at so many of the massive corporate-sponsorship shows at events like SXSW, artists will show up, mug for the camera, and deliver their contractually-obligated 60 to 90 minutes, and then wave goodbye to the assembled crowd while they quickly bolt out the back door of the venue and rush over to the bank to cash their check. Prince was in no such hurry. He took the stage shortly after midnight, and his performance was built to last. While he ditched the stage fairly early on for his first encore, he and the 22-piece version of the New Power Generation he brought with him were offstage for no more than thirty seconds before reappearing for another pair of sets, stretching out until two AM. When two o’clock hit – the legally-mandated time that bars in Texas have to stop serving alcohol, which has historically meant the time when all Austin shows end – Prince and the band had just finished their second encore. It would have been safe to assume that the show was over at that point, and an announcer from Samsung thanked Prince for playing. But no one moved, and after a few moments, he was back onstage for a fourth set. This one featured a rare appearance from an actual hit song recorded by Prince – a dynamite rendition of Sign O The Times’ “U Got The Look” – and some stellar stage banter bon mots (“They say we got 20 more minutes. Do U think they can B the best 20 minutes of our lives?”).

[caption id="attachment_69541" align="alignnone" width="640"]Swooning for Prince at SXSW 2013. Photo: John Sciulli/Getty Images Swooning for Prince at SXSW 2013. Photo: John Sciulli/Getty Images[/caption]

5. He's More the Master of Ceremony These Days

Here’s something Prince did not do much of at all on the stage at La Zona Rosa: play an instrument. He sat at a keyboard occasionally, yeah, but only very briefly and never for a whole song. He did not strap on his guitar to play “Purple Rain,” though, or anything else. The whole set felt much less like a Prince concert than it did a big party hosted by Prince. He sang a lot, but he also let his backup singers carry the burden a fair amount of the time. He played Prince songs, but he also played a bunch of other stuff. He had a massive horn section march onto the stage wearing SpiritHoods hats (way to make your horns look like a big bunch of band camp nerds, Prince) and he would call for them to solo one after another all while begging his backing dancers (he brought two, one of whom was onstage nearly the entire set) to “somebody come dance with me!” In other words, Prince played the part of a true master of ceremonies at least as much as he played the part of a singer/musician performing a concert. This was not an ego show, and while the not-insubstantial part of the audience that wanted to hear “When Doves Cry” and sing along to “Raspberry Beret” may have felt a little alienated initially, it’s hard to really believe that anyone who stuck around for the whole show felt ripped off.