By Sam Bleazard
Some people have religion, some people have drugs…and some people have other things. Nothing prepared me for what happened at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Sunday Feb 9, but suffice to say that Prince’s performance was one of the ‘other things’.
Like many great artists Prince has continued to be restless musically and has at various points, not so much re-invented himself, as scratched every musical itch going. Following the UK and London media frenzy in recent days I was intrigued to know what else, if anything, he had in his trick bag. In the clamour for tickets to secret gigs such as the warm up shows in Camden’s Electric Ballroom, it’s been a challenge keeping track…and so it was that 1.5-2 thousand souls came to be queuing round Shepherd’s Bush Green on Sunday night. Some had been there minutes after it was announced that day on BBC 6 music with Cerys Matthews, while others like me had jumped in taxis throughout the afternoon to join the throng. Speculation about who would get in, how much tickets were…and what he would play were rife.
As it turned out: everyone got in; it was £10 on the door, and he played pretty much everything…and watching on from the balcony was a very sprightly 73 year old by the name of George Clinton, a man who spawned a rock-funk empire and who spent the whole night applauding and grinning down on him chipmunk-like from above…
When we got on to the balcony to take our seats the screech of guitars could already be heard as we walked into a deafening wall of sound. Prince was standing centre-stage amid lights and smoke sporting a natural afro, a Gibson guitar and an all-female group. It took a bit of getting used to, the sound, the spectacle and the sight of an insanely sprightly music legend…who to all intents and purposes reacted throughout as if it was his first ever concert.
Early photos of Prince reveal a shy young kid, with an afro, but what came across in West London was the sense that he’s still as excited as that kid with the afro…but a lot less shy. The music grabbed you straight away, it was visceral, loud, raw, but completely compelling…if Jimi Hendrix had ever recruited an all-female band it would have almost certainly looked and sounded like 3rd Eye Girl. The first twenty minutes was breathless, and in truth it never really let up for over two hours. Prince traded solos with debutant guitarist Donna Grantis in a way that would have made Led Zeppelin proud, solo after solo came and went but couldn’t disguise the tight arrangements – with their bandleader seemingly able to stop and start them at the slightest cue.
Prince however did have one thing in common with the mortals in the crowd, which was that all were happy to be there and in keeping with the fun mood he repeatedly joked that we expected a lot for our $10…Following a mix of classics like Let’s Go Crazy, I Could Never Take Place of Your Man and new tunes such as Fix Ur Life Up in the opener…the breathless crowd did eventually get their breather, when in a moment of rare surprise Prince took to a piano. His solo performance there was teasing, compelling and vocally superb. Tracks such as How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore, Do Me Baby, Adore, The Beautiful Ones and Diamonds & Pearls showcased a mean and powerful falsetto which came drifting out of the speakers before Prince pulled yet another musical trick from his bag.
At the O2 several years ago Prince had been having fun experimenting with a keyboard sampler on stage, but at Shepherd’s Bush he did something quite different. Whipping the crowd up with beats and samples from the likes of When Doves Cry and Sign O The Times, he then began to create loops for himself to play along with. To watch it was to be an onlooker while a genius was at play…songs like Forever in My Life and Something In The Water almost became new compositions, some with bass solos, others with radically different arrangements and audience sing-a-longs as participation. The humour continued too, aside from the constant references to the ticket price, Prince promised us ‘one tune for you, one for me’…before launching into a souped up hard-rock version of Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music. With tongue placed firmly in cheek he kept chuckling and praising P-Funk legend George Clinton as the ‘teacher’ as he pointed at him between solos.
It’s quite possible that many sections of this concert may well be better than the entirety of other concerts from the majority of rock and pop stars in the months ahead, but Prince was in unrelenting form seemingly having to just get more and more music out into the ether. Three to four dazzling encores were played, in fact I lost count, but lesser known gems such as EndorphineMachine, Dreamer and I Like It There were played alongside new song Screwdriver. This was just before Prince went all Thin Lizzy on us for the closer 1980s Bambi, which again he breathed new life into.
The energy and the charisma of the entire experience made the walls of the Empire shake, and the majority of people seemed genuinely exhausted and speechless by the end…while celebrities such as English model Cara Delevingne were freaking out all over the place. If anything it was maybe too much for the assembled company, but it was the sort of overdose that left no come down.
These are the sort of evenings that Prince has built his legend on after hours, but unlike so many of his contemporaries there is no sign that he’s fading away. Prince Rogers Nelson is in London and he’s here to stay…catch him while you can, he’s “just a little ‘ole guitar playing man”.