"We're gonna just jam tonight – it's just an old-school party," said Prince on Friday night, a few minutes into the first of three nights at Uncasville, Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Arena. And for the next two-and-a-half hours, the Minneapolis Maestro and a razor-sharp 20-piece band tore through a show that spanned his 35-year career, illustrating not only the range of his own phenomenal work, but also his influences and his legacy.
Dressed in a yellow suit over a matching turtleneck, and with his Afro grown out almost to the heights depicted on the cover of his 1978 debut, For You, Prince alternated between the two styles he has brought to the stage in the past year: horn-heavy soul grooves, backed by the latest incarnation of the New Power Generation, and stripped-down rock with the three-piece, all-female 3rd Eye Girl. "We heard you were starved for the funk up here," he said at one point, and from the opening slam of 1994's loopy "Days of Wild," he turned this middle-aged and very white crowd into a sweaty dance club.
Yet unlike Prince's August appearance at New York's City Winery (his last U.S. concert outside of his hometown), he didn't shy away from featuring his incandescent guitar work. Slipping on a multi-colored instrument midway through "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)," he shifted into a rock mini-set that also included the grinding, slowed-down "Let's Go Crazy" that he introduced last year and the glorious b-side "She's Always in My Hair." After concluding with a lengthy, exploratory solo, Prince quietly said, "Cool, I got that out of my system," and brought the full band back to the stage for an extended take on "Musicology," complete with the horn players lining up to make a Soul Train line.
As he concluded the main set with a medley of Purple Rain-era hits that he wrote for other acts – "The Bird" and "Jungle Love," both recorded by The Time, and Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life" – Prince joked, "How many hits we got?" In truth, though, most of Friday's set favored deeper cuts, bypassing such monster singles as "Kiss," "Raspberry Beret," and "Little Red Corvette" in favor of the blistering James Brown tribute "Housequake" and "Let's Work."
Several of his signature smashes turned up in the encore, which began with Prince alone at a keyboard, in complete darkness, singing segments from songs including "When Doves Cry" and "Sign o' the Times" while triggering samples of his own recordings. It was an oddly intimate and experimental moment, like an improvised DJ set, spontaneous and thrilling and a little uncomfortable. As midnight passed, the inevitable closer was a heartfelt "Purple Rain," with a tender vocal and winding guitar solo that saw him exploring the indelible melody as if it were a brand-new song.
In presenting the latest manifestations of both his funk and rock sides, Prince demonstrated that he is as much a virtuoso bandleader as he is a guitarist. Working with eleven horn players, he can arrange and conduct a true big band like a modern-day Duke Ellington, with musicians so drilled and disciplined that he can stop them all on a dime or call for solos on the spot. Indeed, sometimes it felt like he was giving too much stage time to the band and the back-up singers, but at this stage in a legendary career, the expanded line-up offers Prince a whole new palette to paint with.
It was widely speculated that the Mohegan Sun shows would herald a full-scale tour, but so far, there's been no further word. As this performance reminded us, though, all that Prince needs to do to take over the world again is decide that he wants to. As he put it on Friday night, "School's in – I'm the teacher."
"Days of Wild"
"The Sweeter She Is"
"Something In the Water (Does Not Compute)"
"Let's Go Crazy"
"She's Always In My Hair"
"Nothing Compares 2 U"
"We're A Winner"/ "I Never Loved a Man"/ "Satisfied"
"I Don't Want Nobody 2 Give Me Nothing"
"The Bird"/ "Jungle Love"/ "The Glamorous Life"
"When Doves Cry"/ "Sign O The Times"/ "Hot Thing"
"I Would Die 4 U"
"U Got The Look"