Live In L.A.: Prince — Straight, With Chaser
The Roosevelt Hotel Blossom Room
June 29 2007
At his concert Friday night, Prince joked that his L.A. friends had warned him: Ain't nothing goin' on in L.A.!
Stage banter aside, the truth is that we live in a remarkable place at a remarkable time — The Kid's decision to perform an early-summer residency here only proves it. The last week or so was insanely historic, even for L.A.: Paul McCartney doing an in-store at Amoeba Records (the world's greatest record store); the White Stripes gigging at the imaginary Icky Thump Records (formerly Tower on Sunset); and, of course, the Prince formerly known as the Artist holding court in the Roosevelt Hotel's Blossom Room (where the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1929). What a city. What a summer!
So in the midst of constant bad news about the world and the music business, I wanna grab this moment and say, This Happened — And It Was Good.
Granted, Prince's Roosevelt tryst has had a much less populist flavor than the McCartney and Stripes stunts: Prince tix start at $312.10, and the whole affair looks to be underwritten by the telecom industry. As you enter the hotel, you're forced to walk a red-carpet gauntlet — in case you happen to be Chris Rock, Jessica Biel, or one of the other beautiful ones in attendance Friday — and the overall vibe is excessively Hollywood. (You know what I mean: Too many men with too much money and too little respect for the sanctity of a woman's personal space. As part of the standing-room hoi polloi, I was pushed, blocked, and rather creepily brushed by an array of unattractive males apparently suffering from a collective delusion of importance. There were a few gentlemen in the crowd, though.)
But whatever. Prince seems to be the great equalizer of performers: Under his sway, fans — the wealthy, the grand, and the merely mortal — are eventually reduced to a single, huddled mass of sentimental, blissful idiots.
Eventually. One of the strangest things on Friday night was watching Prince forced to warm up the audience — who were chatting loudly in the back of the room for maybe the first half-hour of the show (which began at 12:30 am and lasted about 90 minutes). (This was not the case at his Las Vegas gig, which I reviewed in the spring.)
No doubt the audience was waiting for a hit: Prince and his band opened with a New Orleans-style "Down By the Riverside," which morphed into a 20-minute gospel-blues vamp on "Satisfied," off his last album 3121. His new lyrics were hilarious — about his "cock-eyed" woman (who asks for the pepper but looks at the salt!), and proved that comic timing is yet another weapon Prince carries on his Total Entertainer toolbelt. (And let's not forget that unearthly falsetto, which he used to impressive ends in the opener.)
The setlist was surprisingly similar to the Vegas show I caught, but this time I wasn't as bothered by the brass section — specifically, the way its sonic harshness can bleach the darkness and mystery from Prince's compositions. I still think "If I Was Your Girlfriend" suffers under the pomp and crash of the brass, but mostly the arrangements felt appropriate to the moment: This was meant to be a debauched house party more than a concert. It wasn't meant to be the Total Journey a Prince fan always longs for, and experiences through his best albums.
He's focusing on those best albums lately, too, apparently leaning away from most of his late-'90s output (The Gold Experience et al.). Even the newer songs he performed sounded vintage — like "Lolita," off 3121, which sounds like it could easily be something he pulled from the vault. That's good.
Funny thing, though: The songs bled into one another, and often echoed each other, as melodic and rhythmic motifs repeated — until we could hear a unified sonic landscape unfold around us. You could say we had entered Princeland; it certainly felt as if we were nestled in a knoll deep within his ouevre, where you could hear how the loveliest regions of his catalogue all connect. The bouncing "3121" became an update on "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night" (from Sign O' The Times), with a nod to "Hotel California"; while the whistles from "America" (off Around the World In A Day) were borrowed as a horn riff for "Musicology." When his winning backup singers broke into a wonder twin-powered cover of Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately," we were all reminded of Prince's shared Minneapolis DNA with Janet's producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
As Prince and Co. dug deeper into the hit-bag, the crowd loosened — "Kiss," the "Bang A Gong"-inspired "Cream" (heavy cowbell!), "U Got the Look," even a cover of Chakha Khan's "Sweet Thing" — seduced and invited the crowd to sing along (which everyone did, loudly and without shame). By the way, his new song, "Guitar" (off the forthcoming Planet Earth) also fits in nicely with those — goofy, funny, somewhat Bolanesque. Naturally, Prince closed with his abridged version of "Purple Rain" and, ever the showman, urged the audience to whoop along to that mournful "oo oo oo ooo..." refrain — which we did, again, even louder than before.
Despite midnight misanthropy and a bourgeois grudge against the wealthy, at that moment, I couldn't help but love my fellow man — even my fellow asshole. People may be terrible, but they can be beautfiul when they sing a kickass power ballad together.
Prince declined to perform an encore, but he sat in during his band's post-show jazz jam, held in an adjacent room (which began at 2:30 and went till about 4). This much smaller audience lounged on leather couches or stood around, while the band — featuring a husband-wife team on bass and drums — riffed on Monk's "Straight, No Chaser." I was wondering how Prince would adapt to a bebop situation; the answer was, he didn't. After he appeared on the small stage and strapped on his guitar, bebop became rock pretty fast as the band seemed momentarily to tear into a variation on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — which was actually "Anotherloverholenyohead" (off the sublime Parade, an album sadly overshadowed by its monster hit, "Kiss"). Cutely enough, this version of the song employed the riff from "Rock Lobster" (or something very close to it). Prince's solo on this one was what a dude would call "sick," better than anything he'd done earlier in the night. I have never heard anyone produce a sound so thick and menacing — and yet elegant — from a guitar (including Mr. Jack White). Guitar-wise, Prince is the closest I will ever get to Jimi Hendrix, but he's much more sophisticated and versatile, even at his sludgiest. In short, this solo — as much a celebration of the act of the guitar solo as a solo in itself — was the single greatest guitar performance I've ever witnessed live.
Prince disappeared soon after "Anotherloverhole," and the band played "Caravan" for the stalwarts, the very drunk, and those who were sacked out on the couches. After the metal explosion we'd just witnessed, this served as a satisfying digestif. And then it was over. Walking out into the early morning, with a slightly brightening sky overhead, I felt a kind of music-satisfaction I hadn't felt in ages. The night was over, but the summer's just begun.