The splits are gone and the high, spiky boots replaced with metallic wedges that flash red in the heels. And his lascivious moments are toned way down, limited to three derriere wiggles and, for a second, what looked to be a simulated wanking. But at the first of four Louisville shows kicking off his Hit and Run USA tour, Prince, 56, proved that neither age nor reported hip problems have dulled the seismic live performances that have helped define his decade-spanning career.
The musician who is announcing concert dates only days before the shows, chose Louisville in tribute to Hannah Welton, the blonde drummer in his band 3rdEyeGirl. Just before the Purple One took the stage, Welton, a hometown girl, promised the sold-out audience "the best show you've ever seen." Most of the nearly 3,000 seemed to be expecting nothing less.
"Kentucky, let me tell you how this is gonna go," Prince, conservatively dressed in all black, said upon taking the stage. "Have you ever heard nine hits in a row?"
It wasn't precisely true: He sneaked the irresistible "Funknroll" in with such bonafides as "Let's Go Crazy," "U Got the Look," "Controversy" and "1999." But no one cared that the Art Official Age highlight wasn't truly a hit. After a prolonged greeting that made the Palace Theatre's floor shake, Prince picked up his black, leopard-strapped Vox guitar and paced the stage, playing with such ease and abandon that the instrument seemed almost an appendage. "Leave the lights off," he instructed the crew. "This is too funky." Here are the night's five best moments:
1. The Reinvention of "Little Red Corvette"
Originally a glib pop song, "Little Red Corvette" became a sultry prelude to seduction, slowed down with only one thing in mind. Prince opened with a growl, jumped to a silky, Michael Jackson-tinged falsetto, screamed before launching into a bump-and-grind and followed it all with an achingly emotive guitar solo. "Can't nobody do it like Prince do," he crowed.
2. The Persuasive Dancing
"You all know I'm gonna get down," Prince said halfway through "Kiss," one of the most electric songs of the evening. That he did, spinning and clapping, shaking his hips and dropping to one knee, his other leg extended. In the night's second show, some 30 fans rushed onstage for an intimate "Housequake" dance party.
3. Giving the Drummer Some
Well-known for fostering talent, Prince repeatedly referenced drummer Welton, at one point sauntering backstage and returning with a copy of Drum! magazine featuring her picture on the cover. "This your hometown?" he asked as if he didn't know. "Well, it's as funky as you said it'd be."
4. Jams With Guitarist Donna Grantis and Bassist Kristine Nielsen
Prince's affection for 3rdEyeGirl, which first recorded with him on 2014's PlectrumElectrum, was obvious all night. He dueled and danced with Grantis and Nielsen, flirted with both, then implored them to play back-to-back. After Grantis delivered a staggering solo on "PretzelBodyLogic," he held his hand over her head for applause.
5. Prince Gets Emo
"Nothing Compares 2 U" and "Purple Rain" have lost none of their searing, soul-ripping power, mostly because Prince still lives their lyrics. On the former, he looked as if he might burst into tears, holding a hand over his heart and passionately trailing his fingers down his face. On the latter, the Jehovah's Witness assumed Christ-like poses, raising his arms as if ready for the crucifix. His lip curled and his face contorted in pain when his guitar wailed and pleaded. He frequently covered his eyes as if it were all too much.
"What a night!" he exclaimed near the end. "Some people say I was born in the Eighties. Maybe I was born tonight."