November 29, 2022 12:13
Prince (1958-2016) had a notoriously stormy relationship with the music industry: he signed his first contract at a very young age with Warner Bros. which presented him as a sort of new Stevie Wonder, a boy prodigy capable not only of writing and produce his own music, but also to play all the existing instruments. Under that contract Prince became a superstar: he produced radio hits, successful albums, films, videos and soundtracks in an uninterrupted stream, earning but above all making record companies and managers earn a lot of money.
Over the course of his long career, Prince has renegotiated contracts, changed his name, reclaimed possession of his original master tapes, and gone around with the slogan Slave (slave) on his cheek in protest, he tried to use the net to self-distribute his music, but above all he produced an enormous number of songs, for himself and for other artists, many of which still lie unreleased in an archive . The only constant in his musical life has been playing live: Prince performed almost every night of his existence from the early eighties until a few days before his death on April 21, 2016. were arenas, stadiums or arenas; Prince also played late at night in small venues or, if he was at home, in Minneapolis, he played on the private stage of his complex, the Paisley Park studios. Prince practically every night picked up a guitar or bass, sat down at a piano, Hammond organ or electronic keyboard and made music. With others or even alone.
It is therefore strange that, with such an intense live activity, in Prince’s vast discography there are so few official live albums. At the moment there are “only” five (of which three came out after his death). In the eighties, either you were lucky enough to see it live or you swooned over it bootleg, pirated recordings often of mediocre quality. There were also more official recordings, linked to live television or radio broadcasts, such as the final evening of Purple rain tour in Syracuse, USA on March 30, 1985, or the date in Dortmund, Germany on Lovesexy tour (September 9, 1988); but in principle one had to rely on unofficial sources.
These impromptu shows, accessible to very few fans, were a staple of the Prince mystique
Among the most desired and fabled bootlegs of the late eighties was a recording titled Small club – Second show that night: a pirated but high-quality recording of a surprise concert Prince gave on August 19, 1988 at Paard van Troje, a tiny jazz club in The Hague, Netherlands. It was typical of Prince: after the official show, having given the last encore and having received the last applause, he would secretly move to a small club with some members of the band to continue making music and improvising until the first light of dawn .
It’s less strange than it might seem: it can’t be easy to be Prince for three hours and then turn off the switch, make some linden tea and go to bed. These impromptu shows, accessible to a very few lucky and well-connected fans, were a fundamental element of the mystique of the golden age Prince, the superhero of funk who never slept. For him they were moments of relaxation and experimentation, often occasions to launch new songs that the public had never heard before or to cover other people’s songs.
In Small club, after a long instrumental intro Prince addresses the audience and says: “Raise your hand: who’s drunk in here?”. A very different entrance from that of the official concerts of that period, in which he arrived on stage with a fluttering suit spotted in a white Cadillac escorted by dancer Cat and drummer Sheila E.
In 2007, when Prince announced a series of twenty-one dates at London’s O2 arena (one residency, as we would say in Las Vegas) is a very different man from the genius who for a decade has strung together pop hits and amazing tours. Physically he seems ageless, but in his life there have been two wives, a son who died shortly after his birth, momentous quarrels with record companies and a large number of albums which, however brilliant (at least some), struggle to keep up. with the times. By 2004 he had had a commercial resurgence with the album Musicology, a disc published on his own and only distributed by Sony Music who had reluctantly accepted that he would give it away to anyone who bought a ticket for his concerts. The press described Musicology as a come back, a great comeback, but he, in the frequent interviews he granted in those years of sudden talkativeness, was indignant: “But what comeback? I never left!”
The 21 evenings at the O2 arena in London are therefore the culmination of a rediscovered success for Prince, who finally, after decades of career, feels he no longer has to prove anything from a commercial point of view. He understood that the record industry that he had spent his life fighting was crumbling and for him, a very rich artist thanks to his intense live activity and continuously renegotiated contracts, all that remains is to do what he does best: to be Prince.
The London concerts (of which there are no official recordings except for a few video clips) are the triumph of “being Prince”: eclectic and capricious lineups that don’t always include the hits that the public expects, continuous improvisations in which he changes the atmosphere of the evening according to his mood and above all, behind his ease on stage, a martial control of the best band he has ever had. Among the musicians on stage stand out Cora Coleman-Dunham on drums, the Brazilian jazz keyboardist Renato Neto and above all the legendary funk saxophonist Maceo Parker, already the backbone of various bands of James Brown and George Clinton. Prince makes sure that one concert is never the same as another and several fans go into debt to attend all 21 evenings.
The British journalist and writer Matt Thorne, author of the most exhaustive book ever published on Prince’s production, attended no less than twenty of the twenty-one concerts (the only one who missed due to force majeure had it described in detail) and above all entered the tunnel of the after showthe secret shows that Prince held (or abruptly decided not to hold) at the end of every official performance.
Thorne dedicates an entire chapter of his book to the experience and he himself apologizes for the repetitiveness of the notes he took: “Well, tonight was the best concert of all” is a phrase that recurs with alarming frequency, right from the third date. In half residency Thorne understands that it makes no sense to rank concerts so idiosyncratically different from one another and above all understands that it makes no sense to look for logic in Prince’s whims. Another thing he understands is that the real show was the one held for the lucky few, after two in the morning, at the Indigo, a small hall adjacent to the ugly but functional London arena.
The most difficult thing was to understand whether Prince would show up at Indigo or not: sometimes it happened that, after endless queues to buy tickets that weren’t exactly cheap, the fans found themselves in front of only a DJ or maybe just some member of the band Prince, with or without appearances by more or less famous local artists. When it arrived, there were surprises: on the evening of September 22, for example, Amy Winehouse appeared to sing with Prince Love is a losing gamand (a song that he has always loved very much). Here, if you want, there is an audio.
Yet Prince was very often there and appeared smiling on stage, at two or three in the morning, fresh as a rose and ready to make people dance until dawn. Matt Thorne, a methodical and rational journalist, immediately understands that he must give up looking for a logic in Prince’s behavior, but one thing is certain: the music recorded in Indigo nights, the only official live album of that period, released as a gadget of a voluminous photo book, is not the best that has come in that hectic month. To us mere mortals who have not seen Prince for twenty nights in a row, however, only that remains, and I guarantee you that it is not bad at all.
The traces of Indigo nights are taken from two different secret shows, the one on September 17th and the one on September 22nd 2007. Love is a losing game sung with Amy Winehouse is missing, perhaps for reasons of permits from record labels, which at that time were not on idyllic terms with Prince. The live recording, very detailed even in the dirtiest sounds (audience noises, laughter, instruments that are moved on the small stage), starts with a long party-jam based on the piece 3121in which Prince inserts interpolations from his old songs (D.M.S.R) and from jazz classics (The entertainer by Scott Joplin, 1902).
Difficult not to get carried away by enthusiasm: Prince is not only an exceptional bandleader, he is also an instrumentalist, a singer, a backing vocalist, an MC and a comedian. And when he leaves Girls & boysone of hundreds of slightly forgotten singles that Prince can draw from his boundless repertoire, the audience reacts as if he had attacked Purple rain o Little red Corvette. Cleverly Prince puts it in the lineup too The song of the hearta lovely little pop song that he gave to the soundtrack of the animated film Happy feet.
Hearing this document again today makes us reflect on what it meant to lose his talent so early
Between one piece and another, monologues abound, tra lo spoken word and the stand up comedy, always on the extended beat of the previous piece. In one skit titled Just like U Prince remembers when he was a normal person, when he could go out during the day without being recognized. “Before, I used to go out quietly to compare cigarettes and tampaxes for my mother” – a decidedly Prince pairing of objects – “and now instead I find myself in front of an idiot, followed by six other idiots who beg me: Prince, hey Prince, if only I could take a picture of you with Michael Jackson I’d settle down, I’d retire.” In his skit he compares being famous to an animal at the zoo that everyone wants to photograph and then go about their business. And then the music comes back: Beggin’ woman blues is Prince’s adaptation of a 1947 blues classic by Cousin Joe e Rock steady is the cover of a pressing song by Aretha Franklin from the seventies here sung by an exceptional English artist that Prince hosts on stage: Beverley Knight. Hearing Knight sing funk with a band of this caliber reveals how undervalued her talent has been undervalued by labels who limited themselves to selling her as a British answer to Beyoncé when it could have been much, much more. The gap between funk and rock dissolves when Prince, picking up his guitar, on the bass line of Rock steady starts Whole lotta love of Led Zeppelin. If this isn’t a tour de force…
On the finale he deceives the audience by suggesting the initial chord of The question of U to then launch into another more recent piece, The one. Dawn comes when the Indigo audience is still dancing: All the critics love U in New York (one of the more experimental pieces of his old album 1999) it turns into All the critics love U in Londonin a riot of repartee with the audience on one of the funkiest bass lines of his career.
To hear again today this document in which Prince is at the height of his musical maturity and his capacity as a performer makes us reflect on what it meant to lose his talent so early. Prince’s death was above all the interruption of a discourse that was evolving and all the unreleased records that are coming out and will continue to come out will never be able to tell us what would have happened if he were still alive.