Thierry CôtéI feel the need to preface this by saying I am not a Prince fan. And I feel the need to clarify that statement by stating that what I mean is that when it comes to an artist as prolific, prodigious and… somewhat peculiar as Prince, the true fans are in a different class. They follow his creative left turns, experiments and indulgences wherever they may go, they join his fan clubs, they keep the faith that his genius – an objectively measurable trait, not subjective praise – may yet result in more works that reach the heights of what he’s attained in the past. And that’s not me. It does not, by any stretch, mean that I don’t like the massive body of work that Prince Rogers Nelson has released over his thirty-plus year career – indeed, I grew up on ’80s top 40 radio, the same era in which his best works made him a global superstar and a lot of those songs are in my musical DNA. But real and proper Prince fans are a special breed and I don’t count myself amongst them.
But I was rubbing elbows with them on Saturday night, the second night of the opening stop of his much-anticipated “Welcome 2 Canada” tour at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. My degree of fandom only justified buying nosebleed seats for the show, which would be my first time ever seeing him live, but word out of the first night was that there were free ticket upgrades to be had if you just asked the right people. And indeed there were, which is how I ended up in the VIP “Purple Circle” section of the floors, nestled cozily into the top corner of the massive “Love symbol”-shaped stage which was set up in the middle of the arena. Not that I’m bragging or anything… okay, I am a little. But from the floor, I could see where I would have been sitting otherwise, and believe me when I say they were possibly the saddest seats in the entire venue. So this was better.
Advance information from the first show was also encouraging – a set jammed full of hits showcasing his mastery of funk, soul, rock, pop, everything, running over three hours in length with six encores and a guest appearance from legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker. Would we do as well on night two? Despite the advertised 8PM show time, the lights didn’t dim until 8:50 – which was fine, Friday had to wait until quarter past 9 – and anyone intending to hold Prince to account for tardiness promptly forgot as the artist formerly and forever known as Prince rose from the middle of the stage and led the NPG into “Gold”. And as strong an open as that was, the second selection was already a show-stopper – “Purple Rain”, wrought as epically as one could imagine. Few artists would be confident enough to bust out what is arguably their greatest composition so early in the show but as he would point out later on in the show, he had over 145 hits to choose from; the veracity of this claim can be debated, the confidence behind it cannot.
In any case, it was a damn near transcendent moment culminating with a guitar solo that was just beyond. Everyone was on their feet. Dancing, singing, clapping, screaming, whatever. All of it justified. And as the dust settled from the extended coda, a synth tone slowly rose in the mix. It was obvious what song it had to be, but surely he’d give us a chance to recover, to catch our breaths? He couldn’t possibly be going from “Purple Rain” straight into– “Dearly beloved…”. Okay, yes he could. The spoken word intro to “Let’s Go Crazy” was milked for all its worth but the payoff – including a foray into “Delirious” and then back for (another) epic guitar solo – was more than worth it.
And that was essentially the format of the show; technically probably medleys but more like suites of songs, built around a massive hit and segueing into covers (Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People”, Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”, Chic’s “Le Freak” all got nods), deeper cuts, extended solos, whatever. If you didn’t know one of the songs, which I didn’t for a fair bit, it didn’t really matter because a) it would shift into something you did know soon enough, b) it was being delivered with such verve and style that you’d be dancing along anyways or c) you’d be too busy gawking at the showmanship onstage to notice.
Say what you will about his idiosyncrasies out in the real world, but on stage Prince is king. The set up was relative spartan, with the band stationed at the very top of the Love symbol and Prince’s mic set up in the middle, but every inch of it got a workout as he roamed, strutted and sashayed to every corner of the arena, either dancing or ripping guitar lines or both, working the crowd into a frenzy with each wag of his finger, cock of his head, shake of his ass. Even at 53, he looked ageless, had boundless energy and still oozed sexuality. For serious. And while some may have chosen to see his many “TORONTO!” shout-outs as contrived, I chose to believe there was genuine affection being expressed – he did use to live here, after all. And the look of delight on his face on hearing the roar of his fans? There was no faking that.
His three backing singers – Shelby J, Elisa Dease, and Liv Warfield – got almost as much of a workout as they kept up with their boss and even took lead on a cover of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” while Prince took a short breather, and they were periodically joined onstage by guitarist/vocalist Andy Allo who was almost as much of a presence on stage as Prince. Almost. And for a few songs, a number of lucky fans were invited onstage to dance at the front of the stage. It was a spectacle, no doubt, but unlike many shows of this scale it was still first and foremost a band, onstage, playing – no props, no set pieces, no Prince dancers. Okay, there were confetti cannons that showered all in purple and gold but come on – it was the purple rain.
You got a sense the main set was ramping up to a finale when it went to all hits, all the time – a euphoric run that ran “Little Red Corvette” into “Take Me With U” into “Raspberry Beret” into “Cream” but wrapped with not an official Prince tune but “Cool”, which he wrote for The Time in 1981. A curious finish, but not the finish at all as everyone knew – here came the encores. Until this point, the baby grand piano set up on the far left of the stage had been used as little more than a prop for climbing on and writhing, but when Prince sat down at it and the unmistakeable synthetic beat of “When Doves Cry” ran out through the ACC, it became clear that it wasn’t a piano at all, but a sampler station set up to allow him to recreate the complexities of the songs solo while simultaneously laying bare just how simple they were at their core. Astonishing to see, and when the band rejoined him for a grand and funky “Kiss”, which culminated in an extended dance/ass-shaking solo that brought the house down, most everyone was sure this was just them getting warmed up for another extended run – but no, that was it.
You knew that someone like Prince wasn’t going to repeat himself night after night, but I didn’t expect that would be as two-edged a sword as it felt. Rather than six encores, we got one and rather than the three hours ten Friday night’s audience got, this night ran a comparatively light two hours twenty. And yes, I completely understand how ridiculous it is to criticize an artist for “only” giving over two hours of top-of-his-game, unbelievably entertaining effort but still, it felt like the show was ended prematurely and an unworthy punctuation mark on what was otherwise been a stellar show. Happily, that latter fact – that I had just seen a bona fide legendary artist from as close up as you could possibly get and been thrilled for the duration – has become the prevailing memory. I’ve heard some words of disappointment in the show from die-hard fans who’ve got numerous past Prince experiences to compare with, and I can see where they’re coming from. Hell, if I’d even gone to both nights of this stand I’d probably have thought the first was better (based on pure quantitative comparisons), but this was my first Prince show and it was incredible and I’m grateful to have it. Still not going to call myself a fan by the standards established at the start of this piece, but after Saturday night I’m exponentially moreso. His name is Prince. And he is funky.
Spinner, The Globe & Mail, The National Post, CTV, The Toronto Sun and The Toronto Star have reviews of the Friday night while NOW was on hand for night two. The Toronto Star also landed a pre-tour email interview with the artist.
No photos as there are no photos of Prince. We weren’t even allowed to take our phones out in the Purple Circle, so many thanks to Thierry from Sonic Weapons who was able to snap the accompanying shot at the Friday night show. And the list below is what happens when my OCD meets Google and an extensive videography. Be afraid.
Video: Prince – “Crimson And Clover”
Video: Prince – “Chocolate Box”
Video: Prince – “Somewhere Here On Earth”
Video: Prince – “Song Of The Heart”
Video: Prince – “Fury”
Video: Prince – “Black Sweat”
Video: Prince – “Cinnamon Girl”
Video: Prince – “Call My Name”
Video: Prince – “Musicology”
Video: Prince – “The Daisy Chain”
Video: Prince – “U Make My Sun Shine”
Video: Prince – “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold”
Video: Prince – “Face Down”
Video: Prince – “The Holy River”
Video: Prince – “I HAte U”
Video: Prince – “Dolphin”
Video: Prince – “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”
Video: Prince – “Acknowledge Me”
Video: Prince – “Pink Cashmere”
Video: Prince – “Peach”
Video: Prince – “7”
Video: Prince – “Damn U”
Video: Prince – “The Continental”
Video: Prince – “Blue Light”
Video: Prince – “The Morning Papers”
Video: Prince – “My Name Is Prince”
Video: Prince – “Sexy MF”
Video: Prince – “Willing And Able”
Video: Prince – “Insatiable”
Video: Prince – “Money Don’t Matter 2Night”
Video: Prince – “Diamonds And Pearls”
Video: Prince – “Cream”
Video: Prince – “Gangsta Glam”
Video: Prince – “Violet The Organ Grinder”
Video: Prince – “Gett Off”
Video: Prince – “Question Of U”
Video: Prince – “New Power Generation”
Video: Prince – “Thieves In The Temple”
Video: Prince – “Scandalous”
Video: Prince – “Partyman”
Video: Prince – “Batdance”
Video: Prince – “Eye Wish U Heaven”
Video: Prince – “Glam Slam”
Video: Prince – “Alphabet St.”
Video: Prince – “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”
Video: Prince – “U Got The Look”
Video: Prince – “Sign O’ The Times”
Video: Prince – “Anotherloverholenyohead”
Video: Prince – “Boys & Girls”
Video: Prince – “Mountains”
Video: Prince – “Kiss”
Video: Prince – “America”
Video: Prince – “Paisley Park”
Video: Prince – “Raspberry Beret”
Video: Prince – “4 The Tears In Your Eyes”
Video: Prince – “Take Me With U”
Video: Prince – “I Would Die 4 U/ Baby I’m A Star”
Video: Prince – “Purple Rain”
Video: Prince – “Let’s Go Crazy”
Video: Prince – “When Doves Cry”
Video: Prince – “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”
Video: Prince – “Automatic”
Video: Prince – “Little Red Corvette”
Video: Prince – “1999”
Video: Prince – “Sexuality”
Video: Prince – “Controversy”
Video: Prince – “Dirty Mind”
Video: Prince – “Uptown”
Video: Prince – “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”
Video: Prince – “I Wanna Be Your Lover”