Ever since he gave up the glyph and shaved off those “slave” sideburns, Prince has focused on a higher class of gimmick, making all his newfangled publicity stunts revolve around his unchallenged brilliance as a live performer. There was the Super Bowl halftime blowout, the free-CD-with-every-ticket tour gambit, the residencies in everything from Vegas nightclubs to London arenas… Had the high-heeled dynamo left any novelty-concert ideas untouched? Why, yes: Saturday, on the eve of the release of a new three-CD set, Prince pulled off an ambitiously trifurcated one-night stand, playing three no-repeat shows, backed by three completely different bands, in three different venues within downtown Los Angeles’ glitzy L.A. Live complex. You could call it his “Have Suitcase, Will Travel 50 Feet” mini-tour.
It’s impossible to imagine any other performer who could pull off three such wildly different sets with such virtuosic aplomb. But it was an evening fated to end in disgruntlement and glory. Prince complained at great length about the sound system at each of the three shows, which might suggest one drawback to so many hit-and-runs in one night — the lack of a proper sound check at each stop. A vocal minority of fans found reasons to grouse, too. Prince’s new single is called “Chocolate Box,” and as with the fabled box of sweets, you never knew exactly what you were gonna get for your $77 at each show. Some fans complained about the utter predictability of the set list at the first and biggest gig, while, conversely, others groused about the utter unrecognizability of the obscurities that dominated the two club show that followed. But if each set was predestined to piss off somebody who’d hoped to hear a different subset of the artist’s talent than the one they got, the fortunate few who scored tickets to all three shows surely came away certain that Prince’s breadth exceeds even the size of his balls.
Gig Number One, at the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre: This was the populist funk-pop set, mixing celebratory greatest hits with well-traveled covers at the largest of the three spaces. Anyone who saw Prince’s vaunted set at Coachella last year quickly developed a sense of deja vu, between the reliance on Purple Rain chestnuts and the crowd-pleasing revival of hits he produced for the Time and Sheila E., including a requisite cameo by the latter protege on the encore-capping “Glamorous Life.” The set kicked off with “Ol’ Skool Company,” a new song which invokes the superiority of the good old days. Just to prove he wasn’t merely giving lip service to the school being invoked, Prince spent the following hour and a half refraining from playing anything remotely recent; only one choice, 1995’s “Shhh,” even postdated 1987. The comfort-food aspect of this set list might have trumped its by-the-numbers quality, if not for atrocious sound that found Prince’s vocals afflicted by painful distortion for nearly the entire length of the concert. You winced just imagining the purple reign of terror Prince was probably inflicting on lackeys every time he disappeared into the wings.
Gig Number Two, at the 1,100-seat Conga Room: Prince chose L.A. Live’s coziest nightclub to put on a take-no-prisoners rock & roll power-trio workout, the fully Hendrixian likes of which his fans have never quite heard before. Suddenly, the guy famous for singing “Cream” was putting on a show that sounded a little like Cream. Not to put too fine a point on it, this was a set that wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place at Yasgur’s farm in ’69, and had he found a way to time-travel back and play it there, we might still consider it one of the highlights of the Woodstock concert movie today. It wasn’t clear the audience was in for any such glory at the start: Not wanting to risk a repeat of the previous show’s sound debacle, and not standing on formality, Prince and his two backing musicians came out and spent seven minutes doing a public sound check before launching into a particularly heavy version of “I’m Yours,” a rarely revived number from his debut album. “Mind if I play my guitar a little bit? I didn’t get to last show,” he teased. Indeed, the audience got to see a lot of his “O” face as he indulged in the frenzied fretboard valor he usually only hints at, many responding with orgasmic grimaces of their own. “Spanish Castle Magic” made the Hendrix allusions literal, and Prince somehow managed to make a cover of Elvis’ “All Shook Up” sound like it, too, originated with Jimi. After encoring with “Dreamer” — an anthem of racial progress that sounds like the most obvious keeper from his new Lotus Flow3r album — the guitar hero was gone, falling a half-hour short of the 90-minute length that had been promised for each show. But anyone who ever wished Prince would just unabashedly rock out had just gotten their string-bending money’s worth about 10 times over.
Gig Number Three, at the 2,300-capacity Club Nokia: Could the evening continue to crest after that ecstatic midpoint? Well, no. Unhappy ticketholders were forced to wait in a series of Disneyland-like queues in the L.A. Live courtyard as an earlier Madeleine Peyroux gig booked at the same venue let out, and when Prince finally went on at 1 a.m., an hour later than scheduled, most of the audience still hadn’t made it through the final entry gauntlet yet. When they got in, hoping to be reenergized, what they found was a veeeery mellow, “after hours”-feeling jazz and soul jam that had Prince frequently ceding the stage to keyboard player Renato Neto. Until the closing moments, the set was altogether hitless, with the emphasis on rare catalog ballads like “Large Room With No Light” and “Journey to the Center of Ur Heart” — generating frustration among casual fans and sheer giddiness among cultists. A guest turn by Chaka Khan on “Sweet Thing” suddenly galvanized the crowd, and when Prince put down his guitar and began to work the stage during “The Beautiful Ones,” it was the most riveting moment of the entire pageant. But his ongoing feelings about the sound seemed at odds with the blessed-out musical vibe. He launched into an attack on L.A. Live’s owners, AEG (“not AIG,” he pointed out, waggishly): “They spent a lot on the seats, and the lights are beautiful, but I told ’em, work on the sound,” he ranted, namechecking some of the company’s corporate chiefs. “I heard Alicia Keys here, and it was the worst sound I ever heard… Fix the sound and I’ll be here every week… And I’ll do it for free,” he promised — noting that, until then, he wouldn’t be foregoing his $3 million fee. Soon enough, Prince’s mood seemed to brighten, as the clock struck 2:10 a.m. and he pledged to start taking requests. “I got the Kingdom Hall at 1:00, but that’s all,” exulted the world’s most famous Jehovah’s Witness. “We’ll be here all night!” Naturally, he ended the show 10 minutes later.
Exit corridors provided a study in contrasts. “Best show ever!” marveled one devotee. “A hundred dollars apiece just to hear him fuckin’ jam?” grumbled a less avid fan. Apparently, anyone who’d had the full triptych experience relished the anticlimactic chillout set, and those who’d arrived at Club Nokia without anything to come down from didn’t. Come dawn, some would be heading to Target to buy the new album package on the morning of its release, while others would sleep in, nursing hangovers, sore feet, or “He didn’t play ‘Delirious’ ” grudges. A select few might have ended up cruising the Kingdom Halls of southern California, hoping to stumble across a possible fourth set.