Live Review

Prince, Electric Ballroom, London

He plays the Electric Ballroom like it’s a stadium.

Tonight, and probably for this night only, the 1000-capacity Electric Ballroom feels like the centre of the universe. As people who have been there since 8am brave ferocious wind and rain to wait in a queue that seemingly snakes around the whole of London, there’s an audible sense of an ‘event’, that a lightning bolt has hit this particular stretch of Camden High Street.

In a way it has. Because, from a galaxy far, far away, The Purple One has decided to come down from his planet to be with his people in Camden and play his intergalactic funk jams. Prince among men.

The previous night he had played an impromptu ‘open soundcheck’ at the same venue to a couple of hundred fans and press. He finished that gig by telling the crowd “We will be here tomorrow, a bit earlier and a lot funkier”. And so by first thing Wednesday morning people were lined up along the street – so many, in fact, that tonight he is forced to play two separate shows to accommodate them all: we’re lucky enough to stay for both.

As he takes to the stage for the first show there is a nagging feeling that this is a mirage, a hallucination. Indeed, the whole night feels unreal – people entering woop and cheer, hugging each other just to reassure themselves that ‘Yes, this is real, we are here’.

Then, there is he, standing before us dressed in a dark sleeveless jacket and with a trimmed afro that is still nearly as tall as he is – when the lights dim his silhouette could be Hendrix. It’s a reminder that although Prince is technically 55, he somehow remains ageless.

For a man used to having stadiums in the palm of his hand, tonight he is in his element, teasing and tantalising the crowd, thrusting his guitar phallically at the crowd, blasting out fuzzy, hypnotising, heavy riffs and leaving the stage only to return for encore after encore. After everything that’s happened over the past 24 hours the only thing you can be certain about tonight’s show is that you should be ready to expect anything.

After walking on to ‘Pretzelbodylogic’, 3RDEYEGIRL rip into a reworked and grooveladen ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and the crowd obliges, a wave of euphoria heading right over their heads as the riff reverberates round the building. It sets the tone for rest of the show. Songs are re-imagined – see the slowed-down version of ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ – with the emphasis less on the funk and more on the rock end of the sonic spectrum.

Those tracks aside, this is a set which is, understandably, for the real Prince fans, the kind who would wait seven hours to see him. It’s mainly album tracks and B-sides. So we get ‘Something In The Water Does Not Compute’ from 1999 with its gospel grace and slowed down slink; a seductive ‘She’s Always In My Hair’, (the B-side to ‘Paisley Park’); the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin 2007 single ‘Guitar’, and, from new album ‘Plectrum Electrum’, tracks like ‘Fixurlifeup’, ‘FunkNRoll’ and the title track.

Hits or not, it doesn’t matter: this is Prince playing the Electric Ballroom like it’s a stadium. He oozes charisma, exuding a magnetism that means you can’t take your eyes off him for second. Especially as this is Prince back to his rock roots, backed by 3RDEYEGIRL, his all-female ‘funk and roll’ juggernaut.

But then as soon as it’s started it seems to end, Prince handing his guitar to someone in the front row. The house lights go up. Is this it? Not a chance. They come back and blast out ‘Bambi’, (a song, astonishingly, where he tries to convince a lesbian to try making love to him instead). The house lights go up once again, and this time the first act really is over.

If that show whetted the appetite it’s the second which astounds, one that shows that Prince is no mere human, not one of us. As the band return he seems more limber and playful, there’s more dry ice and he plays with the crowd, asking them to dance with him.

The setlist initially mirrors the first almost entirely but this is an artist who never stands still, one you can never second-guess – and we’re soon in his spaceship with him for a tour of his cosmic back catalogue.

They cover ‘Play That Funky Music’ - where he also throws in the riff to Rollercoaster - then we get his mix of ‘Crimson and Clover’ and ‘Wild Thing’ - the licks and the Hendrix nod make perfect sense tonight. As we get to midnight it’s time for the fireworks, and you can tell he’s really enjoying himself now. At one point, as an especially slinky bass line shivers through him, he grins, ‘That bass makes me want to dance like my uncle’.

Then it all goes intergalactic. As he sits down to his piano he starts to play ‘Purple Rain’ and the crowd erupts. The dry ice is mixed with purple and, though we may only get a verse and a chorus as well as guitarists Donna Grantis’ wailing guitar, it’s perfect.

Then it just gets silly. Near taunting a crowd already in raptures, he playfully asks “How many hits you think I got?” before taking us with him on a megamix by someone who has written some of the best songs ever produced. From the moment the drum sound to ‘When Doves Cry’ hits there is no let up. ‘Sign “☮” the Times’, ‘Hot Thing’, ‘Nasty Girl’, ‘Housequake’ and ‘I Would Die 4 U’ as well as glimpses of ‘Alphabet St’ and ‘Pop Life’ and ending with ‘A Love Bizarre’ – it suddenly seems we are indeed in a dream and Prince has us all under his spell.

It’s evidence, if it were needed, that in a world of copyists and retro-obsessed fakes shouting loudly about their uniqueness, Prince is truly one of a kind. He’s an artist who remains almost completely unknowable. But that mystique is also his greatest asset. That we can spend five hours in his company tonight just reinforces that idea of magical otherness. No wonder people are willing to follow him. A journey has begun – tonight London belongs to Prince.

Tags: Prince, Features

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