Prince – Piano & A Microphone Tour Sydney Opera House Saturday 20 February 2016
Prince with just a piano and microphone? Isn’t he just a pop-funk artist peddling slinky, sexy, grinding funk lines with his suggestive lyrics and louche ego-centric persona? How’s that going to work? Sure, his razor sharp pop lines gave us a stunning, and constant, flow of hit singles through the 80’s and into the early ‘90s but how will those songs translate to this format? And won’t the more recent – decidedly under the radar – material dilute the strike rate in a show billed as including material drawing across his entire (39 album!) career? It’s fair to say that I had some misgivings about the show, not least the prohibitive pricing of any half-decent seats.
Still, beyond the singles, the gigantic ego, the shorthand song names and ridiculous ‘artist formerly known as/love symbol’ debacle, I had always suspected that there was something more – principally based on some of the less commercial material from the likes of Parade and (for me his career highpoint) Sign o’ the Times. Then there was the fact that so many friends – whose opinions I respect (many of them musicians) – rated him so highly. So the prospect of this gig intrigued me. It was an unrepeatable chance for me to challenge my preconceptions of Prince and his music. It provided the ideal opportunity for me to approach his music afresh and with an open mind. When a pair of $230 seats (warning: partially obscured view!) became available, I jumped right in.
As we entered the Opera House Concert Hall through a near vertical stair climb up to the choir stalls and took our seats in the rear Box-F, the sparse stage set up of piano and candles heightened my sense of intrigue. His 7pm entrance was at once surprising (orchestral introduction, the walk and bow of a renowned conductor – albeit with a showy pirouette) and quite predictable (purple suit, flamboyant afro and purple high heeled boots – not Johnny Cash cowboy boots or even Bowie platforms but slim stiletto heels!). It was clear that the format was going to fully explore the tension between the pop star and the consummate musician. It was not yet clear which would win out.
Prince appeared to revel in that tension. His opening trio of songs – Big City (from his current HitNRun album), Joy of Repitition (Grafitti Bridge) and The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (Sign o’ the Times) – may have seemed contrary to some but quickly satisfied my desire to delve deeper into his catalogue, to explore the full range of his compositions and to revel in his sheer musicianship. Of course, the funk was never far from the surface and the hits were interspersed regularly enough for Prince to keep the audience in the palm of his hand. They were there to tantalise – as often as not co-joined like the early Little Red Corvette/Dirty Mind or the later Rasberry Beret/Coffee & Starfish pairings. In some instances the hits appeared – like Paisley Park – as no more than teasing intros inciting instant crowd squeals only to be abandoned on whim.
This structure gave Prince full license to take his adoring audience on a journey of his own choosing – to his roots firmly located in a jazzier territory than I (and probably many in the crowd) had hitherto appreciated. The revelation of the evening was the suppleness and subtlety of much of his piano work which proved him adept at caressing and coaxing the notes from his instrument like a seasoned jazz pianist. It was only after the show that I became aware that his father, John L Nelson was himself a jazz pianist of some note. And from our ‘cheap seats’ behind the stage we had the advantage of elevation allowing us to see the kaleidoscopic lighting on the surface of the stage but, more importantly, to look directly down upon the keyboard and enjoy every movement of Princes hands across the keys.
Of course, the underlying tension was there in his piano playing as well, so the jazz vein which ran through the evening as often as not segued effortless and suddenly into a pop flourish, a funky bass repetition or even a Jerry Lee Lewis run. For every studious conservatorium interlude there was a rock star pose as he contorted his legs at right angles – or lifted them in the air – prior to standing and kicking his stool aside. The variety in his solo accompaniment matched seamlessly with the range of his voice for which he is well known and deservedly loved – from the soulful baritone of Screwdriver to the plaintive falsetto of I Luv U But I Don’t Trust U Anymore in the space of two songs and occasionally scatting like a seasoned jazzman.
The set continued through a varied selection ranging from 1979 through to several tracks from the last couple of years. The quieter moments entranced – especially The Beautiful Ones, How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore and Venus de Milo. The funk anthems got the hands clapping with Breakdown, Girls & Boys and Cream standing out in their superior arrangements. When, during Cream he followed the line ‘You’re filthy cute and baby you know it’ with the quip ‘I wrote that line while looking in the mirror’, it somehow reminded us of the tension in this gig – simultaneously appearing as a shared intimacy and reminding us of his cultivated pop-star persona.
And then there were the covers, which arrived in the form of Unchain My Heart (good but surprisingly restrained – more Ray Charles than Joe Cocker), Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain, and a beguiling version of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You.
No matter where Prince took this Sydney Opera House audience, they followed willingly, lovingly, enthusiastically. I have rarely seen a better Sydney crowd. They sat is hushed reverence where appropriate (even shush-ing the odd fool who sought to break the spell with a banal song request). They clapped, sung and cheered enthusiastically where that was called for. At about the 90 minute mark as Prince segued from Cream into a rousing Free Urself, the crowd’s delight was clear. Suddenly the Opera House ‘choir stalls’ adjacent to my seat transformed into a the stalls of a Baptist Congregational. In the midst of this, Prince left the stage, signalling to the crowd to continue. The crowd dutifully obeyed, for several minutes, before Prince re-emerged to sit on his piano and simply take it all in.
It was then that we knew that Prince really had the crowd – and they had him. When he later started into Paisley Park promising ‘one more’, he stopped after a few bars – looked at the crowd and said ‘No. I really need to play this one for you’ before launching into Kiss. Returning once more to the stage after that to cap off the evening with the majestic Purple Rain. At slightly over 2 hours, this was the longest set of his Australian tour to date. It honestly felt that the set had been extended on the spot to recognise the deep connection between audience and performer.
I left the gig in elevated spirits. I had ventured forth, challenging my own pre-conceptions and been rewarded with a show which surpassed my expectations and showed a depth and dexterity to Prince’s musicianship that I had glimpsed but had not previously been fully revealed to me. Sometimes you’ve just got to see artists live to truly ‘get it’ and the ‘piano and a microphone’ format provided the perfect vehicle. I’ll be surprised if I was not the only one at the gig to go from someone who enjoyed his string of pop hits to a fan with a true appreciation of the depth of his talent. Though, by the reception given to him by the crowd, perhaps they got there before me.