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Prince and the New Power Generation @ LA Forum 4/14/11

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A little after midnight, more than three hours after Prince had first taken the stage at the LA Forum, after the house lights had been turned back on for the second time and most of the audience were already on the freeway headed home, about three thousand people stayed in their seats, refusing to call it a night. Throats ravaged from hooting for four encores in a row, they banged on their chairs and stomped their feet until, unbelievably, the lights went back out as the band re-took the stage for the fifth time and burst into a jaw-dropping version of Billy Cobham’s funk-metal-fusion standard “Stratus.”

What had started out as a suitably immense arena show with big hits, dancing girls, confetti and Prince’s usual over-the-top showmanship took on the vibe of an intimate after-hours jam. With the Forum mostly empty as the band dove into obscure songs with long instrumental passages, it felt like we’d been let into a secret show that nobody else knew about.

The longer they went on, the weirder and better the song choices got.“We gonna be here all night!” he’d promised earlier, and as he led his crew into their sixth encore, we all began mentally preparing to call in sick the next morning.

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Thursday’s was the first of twenty-one Prince shows in the LA area over the next several weeks and there’s never been a better opportunity to see him, particularly for the budget-conscious. With a reported 80% of the house selling for $25 a seat, including some of the best seats, it’s the most fan-friendly gesture we’ve seen from a major star in quite some time. (Note: tickets for the fourth Forum show on April 23, which went on sale yesterday, includes a $55 price for loge seating, so it’s not clear whether the 80% rule will remain in effect for the rest of the run, but any substantial number of seats being made available at $25 for a show like this is still good news.)

But nothing’s friendlier to the fans than a show that delivers big, and this current tour finds him pulling out all the stops, focusing the main set on hits and fan favorites interspersed with some well-chosen covers before diving into his deeper catalog at the night’s close. Opener “D.M.S.R.” set the tone, bringing the audience to its feet, where they remained for a splendid, shimmering “Pop Life” and a deliciously tight “Musicology.” The shocking blast of “Uptown” woke up the oldest of the old-schoolers, and a version of the Time’s “Cool” morphed into “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” in an unexpected but fitting and affectionate tribute to a one-time rival.

John Blackwell (drums) and Renato Neto (keyboards) from the original NPG lineup, one of the most capable and flexible units he’s ever put together, have been augmented with bassist Ida Neilsen, three dynamite female singers and a pair of dancing twins. The show was presented on an enormous glyph-shaped stage taking up about three-quarters of the Forum floor, leaving room for only a few rows of seats and a handful of VIP tables down below. Prince has done in-the-round stages before, beginning with 1988’s Lovesexy tour, but this setup allows more of the audience than ever before to feel up close and personal, at least for the few moments when Prince walks out on the nearest extension, waves hello and does a little dance just for them.

Yes, the man can still dance, and it was gratifying to see him do so much of it. Having witnessed most of his tours since 1997, I can testify that this was the most physically active I’ve ever seen him on stage. “The Beautiful Ones”, performed as a balletic duet with one of the dancers, was a visual and vocal marvel, incredibly moving. This was followed with a smooth re-working of “Little Red Corvette” into a downtempo guitar anthem that ended the set proper.

As the parade of encores began, Prince introduced us to the wonders of his remarkable sampling piano, with which he could hold down a single key and play the opening of “When Doves Cry”, “Sign O’The Times”, “Darling Nikki” (refusing to sing a word of it, claiming "Aw no! I'm in rehab!"), and in a gesture “for the young people,” Beyonce's “Single Ladies.” This mildly amusing diversion gave way to a set of some of his most iconic ballads, “If Eye Was Ur Girlfriend”, “Insatiable”, “Scandalous” and “Adore,” the latter of which caused him to protest, “There’s gonna some baby-making going on here if we play that one!”

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The appearance of timbales on stage announced the coming of Sheila E, who led the band through an exceptionally heavy take on “A Love Bizarre,” Prince cutting loose on guitar in a way we hadn’t seen all night. She stuck around for a few bars of “Play That Funky Music” (for which they apparently couldn’t find any white people who knew the lyrics, subverting a common audience-participation move) which thankfully faded away after one chorus and turned the corner into a thrilling romp through “Controversy.”

After that, the lights went up. The crowd started filing out, but the sight of sound techs carefully replacing the mics around Sheila E’s percussion rig made us decide to stick around. Sure enough, after a five minute wait, the lights went back down and the after-party started with a bad-ass “Glamorous Life.” It would be another hour before the band would finish for good, leaving us utterly spent, finally limping out to the parking lot a little after 12:30.

With twenty more shows coming up, and the promise of unique set lists and inexpensive tickets for each one, this is an experience every Angeleno should take advantage of at least once. I predict the city is going to receive a sorely needed cheering-up over the next several weeks.

Set List

Pop Life
Prince & The Band
Uptown *
Raspberry Beret *
Cool (The Time) *
Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough *
Let's Work
U Got the Look
Make You Feel My Love (Bob Dylan) (sung by the trio of backup singers)
Purple Rain (14 minute version with lots of crowd singing)
Let's Go Crazy/ Delirious medley
The Beautiful Ones
Little Red Corvette

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Encore 1
Sampling Piano Bit: When Doves Cry / Nasty Girls/ Sign O’The Times/ Darling Nikki / 777-9311 / Single Ladies *
If Eye Was Ur Girlfriend *
Insatiable *
Scandalous *

Encore 2
A Love Bizarre (with Sheila E)
Play That Funky Music *
Controversy (with Housequake chants)

Encore 3
The Glamorous Life (with Sheila E)
Peach (with Sheila E)

Encore 4
Dance (Disco Heat) (Sylvester) (sung by the trio of backup singers)
Baby I'm a Star

Encore 5
Stratus (Billy Cobham)
Sometimes It Snows in April

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Encore 6
She's Always in My Hair
Dreamer/Welcome 2 America

Songs marked * were performed as part of medleys.

Prince performs at the LA Forum on April 21, 22 and 23, with more dates and locations of his 21 Nights residency to be announced. Tickets, $25 to $755, at Ticketmaster.