"Welcome to rehearsal," Prince cried to the 2,900 fans who packed Worcester, Massachusetts' theater-shaped Palladium club for Tuesday night's hastily arranged kickoff to his nine-date Hit N' Run Tour. But by the time he issued that greeting, Prince and his latest New Power Generation were halfway through a non-stop, hour-long blast through his hits with a fervor and accessibility that's been missing much of the past decade.
Certainly it was a welcome change from the obscure new songs and endless jams that filled his sporadic jaunts in recent years, a time when Prince has largely been off the radar, known more for his name-changing eccentricity than his music.
Prince briefly referenced the Election Night buzz, casting himself the winner and seeking reparation for all Americans in a God-honoring prelude to modern blues "When Will I Get Paid," soloing on the guitar shaped like the symbol name he adopted as a self-described "slave" to former record label Warner Brothers.
Freed from that contract and back to using his old name, Prince seemed ready to reclaim his old throne as well, opening up his early catalog during a two-hour workout that was more exhilarating than exhausting. In a loose white shirt (later replaced by feminine robes and a fleece turtleneck), he wasted no time getting the party started with a one-two blast of "Uptown" and "Controversy." "Get up!" Prince cried, tossing his guitar to stagehands and throwing down tandem moves with shapely dancer Geneva while the band pumped a groove in the tradition of James Brown, especially when sax guest Najee stroked his tenor.
Prince moved with lithe, youthful exuberance, urging Geneva into suggestive flops around a stuffed chair in "Little Red Corvette" (or at least an all-too-quick snippet during the medley-paced first half) and the funk-rattled "Housequake," where Geneva included her own wiggle-and-thrust "solo." And in an encore of "Darling Nikki," Prince himself went from humping the stage riser into a leg-split and a rise to his feet (twice, in case no one noticed it the first time).
For all of Prince's flamboyant posing, however, no one else has come along to attack old-school showmanship quite like the Minneapolis singer, who nodded not only to Brown but Jimi Hendrix, adding a guitar flourish to encore igniter "Let's Go Crazy." He also took turns on keyboards and thumb-popping bass.
Prince's five-piece New Power Generation revealed much of the show's best and worst points, beyond rough edges which weren't all that surprising for the opening of a guerilla-style tour. Drummer John Blackwell was the standout as a thrashing groove merchant who came off like a brash cross between Neal Peart and the late Tony Williams, especially with his stick-twirling, cross-arm strokes. But despite six-string bassist Rhonda Smith's best efforts, keyboardists Morris Hayes and Kip Blackshire couldn't fill out the sound enough to compensate for the lack of a second guitarist or full backup singer, and the mix on Prince's voice was poor.
Najee proved the weak link as well, failing to rise above a smooth-jazz tone and repetitive licks, which lent innocuous icing where Prince could have used bolder finesse. His best moment came when he opened the show (which, in typical Prince form, began two hours after showtime) with a soprano sax soliloquy from a side balcony. When he pulled out a flute in a techno-beat finale of "Kiss" and "Gett Off," where Prince invited several dancers from the audience onstage, it was useless.
But for all the unevenness, Prince had the energy and the songs to keep the crowd enraptured for the duration, from a mid-show group of ballads including a falsetto-tinged "Scandalous" and a slick version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" (which had fans loudly singing along) to the ponderous majesty of "Purple Rain," complete with purple guitar. This was the kind of show Prince fans would have wanted.
"This is the funnest rehearsal I've ever been to," the singer roared near the end, before an oddly placed Santana tribute that ended the night with a smoking fusion of "Jungle Strut" and "Soul Sacrifice." Look out for Prince's finely tuned show.
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