"Hammering! That's the word. That's it!" Prince folds over in laughter and stamps his high-heel boots on the floor. Those heels, as it happens, are clear plastic, and lights twinkle within them. It's a perfect metaphor for the electricity that seems to be coursing through the singer at the moment.
Prince is responding to a description of the torrid version of "D.M.S.R."—a jam from 1999 touting the virtues of "dance, music, sex, romance"—that he and his backing band, the New Power Generation, unleashed earlier that evening at the sold-out Gund Arena in Cleveland. It was a full-on funk stomp that got the house up and shaking. Hammering only begins to convey the performance's pulverizing rhythmic assault. "Pulverizing! That's good, too," Prince says, laughing again. "What you see is people responding to what this band is - and what we're doing."
It's just twenty minutes after the show, and, at a time when most performers would be just beginning to cool down, Prince is utterly composed. He's crisply dressed in a purple tunic and black pants and looks as if he has spent the evening relaxing in his living room rather than burning down a 20,000-seat house. But that's how effortless things seem to be of late for the forty-five-year-old musician. Everybody in the Prince camp—most definitely beginning with Prince himself—bristles when anyone suggests that the current wave of Princemania constitutes a "comeback." The official line is that he never went away. From a strictly literal standpoint, of course, that's true. He's been as busy as ever, using his own label and his Web site, the New Power Generation Music Club, to release CDs such as The Rainbow Children (2001) and N.E.W.S (2003), as well as the DVD Prince: Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas.
But whether or not you buy the message that Prince never left, it's clear that many of his millions of fans had gone somewhere in recent years, and now many of them are staging a comeback of their own. Suddenly, liking Prince doesn't feel like such a chore; in fact, it's fun. His stripped-down, pleasingly straightforward new album, Musicology, delivers on the promise of his spellbinding performances earlier this year on the Grammy Awards broadcast and at his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His live shows have become ecstatic parties, sweaty, two-hour romps through the likes of "Controversy," "U Got the Look," "Take Me With U" and a sizzling version of Sam and Dave's classic "Soul Man." Nearly a recluse before, Prince is now all over the media, chatting on talk shows, posing for photographers, being interviewed by reporters.
It's like an old friend has returned. Indeed, the spring of 2004 is beginning to feel like the summer of 1984, when Purple Rain made Prince one of the biggest rock stars in the world. When he sings, "Don't you miss the feeling that music gave you back in the day?" in "Musicology," he might as well be speaking about his own music. After abandoning his name for an unpronounceable symbol, after painting the word "slave" on his face as part of a battle with his record label, after disowning decades of his own work, Prince is enjoying himself again. And, as always, his enthusiasm is irresistible.
"I had an epiphany last night," Prince says about his appearance in Columbus, Ohio. He's sitting on a couch in his dressing room, shortly before taking the stage in Cleveland. The room is warm and humid, to keep his throat and nasal passages clear and his vocal cords supple. Candles burn on every available surface.
"I was offstage, listening to Michael Phillips take his solo," he continues, alluding to the instrumental portion of the show in which the saxophonist takes a long, atmospheric excursion during "God" while Prince changes clothes and takes a break. "I was thinking, 'Wow, listen to those people responding, and all he's doing is playing a saxophone.' They can feel that what he's doing is real. So many shows now, they have pyrotechnics, pre-taped vocals and musical parts, and it's so dead. But here's one man breathing into an instrument, and the whole room feels alive. It made me want to rise up to that level when I came back onstage."
Part of the goal of the Musicology album and tour is to connect audiences once again to the power of live music. "Take your pick—turntable or a band?" Prince challenges on the album, and his concerts are like a clinic in inciting the sort of pandemonium that only a band can create. That's true even for the players themselves. "This is school for me," says Phillips, 27. "Every night I watch how he connects his gift to the crowd. I've spoken to him about it. He told me that playing a solo is like making love. You have to pay attention to the things that make your partner respond—and space them out so they come at exactly the right time. It's one big, long orgasm.
"I didn't go to college to learn how to play," he continues. "I come from playing gospel in churches. That's a language Prince understands, and when he hears me speaking it, he responds."
If not exactly a new element in Prince's music, that interplay among the musicians is something that Prince is now actively encouraging. He is someone who often plays every instrumental part on his records, and it hasn't come naturally for Prince to relinquish control to his band members. While he has always attracted superb musicians, he's been criticized for rarely giving them the freedom to fully express their talent. As far as he was concerned, he knew how the part should go; their job was to play it.
Those days are gone. "The shows are a lot looser," he says, leaning back on the couch. "I used to be more involved with every aspect of everything onstage. I'm way more relaxed now. It feels like anything can happen.
"That's one of the reasons we're doing these shows in the round: The music is at the center of everything," he continues. "This show is much more about the songs than the staging, which is very simple. I wanted to let the music do the talking. We've also been playing in clubs on some nights, and we carry that with us into the arenas. It's all one show to us. Clubs are where you really learn about crowd control. You're playing on small stages, so you have to be listening to and watching one another, and the crowd is right in front of you. You can't push anything too long. You concentrate on what works, and you hit it."
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