Thursday, March 25, 2021

March 25th 2016, Prince at the Sony Centre

I've been a fan of Prince for a long time. Pretty much since the first time I saw the video for Little Red Corvette during an episode of The New Music back in the eighties. Maybe you've already seen that video before, but indulge me for a moment and imagine seeing it for the very first time, and revel in that opening with the red lights pulsing in time with the opening synth build. Prince is visible in half light and then the camera pulls back to show him wearing a long metallic overcoat, a frilly shirt, and heels. And he looks fucking awesome.

It feels like an important moment in time, and watching it you can tell that he's right on the edge of superstardom. His band aren't The Revolution yet, but they're so close. Lisa Coleman is there, and so is Dez Dickerson wearing a bandanna and some kind of funky 80s tunic thing. I think Jill Jones and Matt Fink are in it too, but I may be confusing it with the 1999 video. All the elements are there, the swagger, the strut, the funk, everything that Prince would come to define in the years to follow. During an instrumental break he does this amazing side step spinning kick that leads into the splits and he keeps perfect time throughout the whole thing. It's a pretty amazing video, and of course it inspired me to check out some more of his stuff, and that soon led me to  "Purple Rain" which was the album that sealed the deal for me and made me a fan of Prince for life.

I bought a cassette copy of "Purple Rain" at the Zellers at Towne and Country Mall a couple of weeks after it was released, and I remember the first time I ever listened to it, just sitting there holding my Walkman with my eyes closed, soaking up every note and beat on the album. The spoken intro at the start of Let's Go Crazy sent shivers down my spine and the song itself blew my mind, an explosion of searing guitars and spiraling heights that never seemed to end, truly an epic piece of music. I immediately liked Take Me With U, resplendent in strings and drum fills and Appolonia's very politely whispered "Thank you" in response to being complimented. Brilliant stuff.

There was something majestic about The Beautiful Ones, a raw, heartfelt emotion that seemed so poignant to me, earning that song a place as one of my all time favorite Prince songs. Computer Blue followed, a swaggering slab of metallic funk guitar-based monstrousness that still amazes me to this day. And then there's Darling Nikki. What more can be said about Darling Nikki? I've often thought that if "Purple Rain" had been released as an EP and had ended with that track it would still be lauded as a masterpiece. I think the world still would have still embraced Prince and recognized him as a formidable talent and his stardom would have still been assured.

But Prince was never satisfied with doing anything half-heartedly, and so we have the second side of "Purple Rain", which in many ways is even more amazing than the first. It opens with When Doves Cry and I'm sure that I don't have to tell you what an amazing song When Doves Cry is. Have you heard it lately? I encourage you to do so right now, it's a fucking masterpiece. Legend has it that the band just came into the studio one day and it was already recorded, mixed and pretty much finished all in one night, Prince having recorded all of the instrumental parts and sang all the vocals by himself after the band had left the studio the night before. Think about that for a second. Prince wrote and recorded When Doves Cry in one night all by himself. If that's not a sign of musical genius I don't know what else is...

As a kid I thought that I Would Die 4 U was the ultimate love song. Up until that point I'd never heard such a bold statement, such an absolute declaration of love. I mean, Prince was willing to die for his Darling if they wanted him too, that was pretty intense. I was pretty impressed by that, although I often wondered if he was talking about Darling Nikki or a different Darling. At the time I was still kind of feeling my way through personal interaction, and stuff like that got a little bit confusing for me.

Anyway, that song blends seamlessly into Baby I'm a Star, which I'll admit at the time I thought was a little self aggrandizing, but looking back on it I'm okay with it now. I mean, I totally recognized that he was a star, but I thought it seemed kind of arrogant to flaunt that fact all over the place. I'm okay with it now, I mean, really he was a star, he deserves to toot his own horn, but at the time I was a little turned off by that kind of bravado.

And then the album ends with Purple Rain, and I'm hard pressed to think of a more epic and sweeping display of grandeur. Purple Rain is quite simply one of the greatest songs ever recorded, and any failure to recognize and acknowledge that fact is pretty much grounds for dismissal in my mind. Building from a simple guitar and vocals into a fully orchestrated wall of sound, Purple Rain is an astonishing and mind-blowing work that transcends the genre of popular music and becomes something spiritual, and needless to say it's the perfect finale to what is arguably Prince's greatest album.

Now you'd think that after releasing one of the greatest Pop albums ever made, you would want to explore the same formula a little more in your follow up, maybe build on what you'd already done and see if you could top your previous efforts. But Prince was never one to follow trends and when "Around the World in a Day" was released in the spring of 1985, it was revealed as a huge departure from the sheer ecstasy that was "Purple Rain". It was a little less funky, a little more psychedelic, and the record buying public didn't really quite get it at first, even though the first single Raspberry Beret was monstrously catchy. I liked the album a lot when it was released, and as the years have gone by it's become one of my favorites in the Prince catalog. Of course saying that "Around the World in a Day" is one of my favorite Prince albums needs to be tempered by the fact that I have so many favorite Prince albums. I mean, who can resist the funk of "1999" or the brilliance of "Sign o' The Times"? Saying that you don't like "Lovesexy" or "Batman" is kind of like saying you don't like music. And don't get me started on the quality of the later stuff, because "Musicology" and "The Gold Experience" and his later work with 3rdEyeGirl are all just as credible and interesting as his earlier stuff. Ultimately the idea of having "a favorite Prince album" becomes entirely dependent on which one I've listened to most recently. There is a legitimate case that each one of them deserves to be recognized as my favorite Prince album.

But as amazing as his albums are, it was in his live performances where he really shone. Prince is one of the most amazing performers I've ever seen, dynamic, charismatic, an incredibly accomplished musician, an artist in the truest sense of the word. I was lucky enough to see him play a few times in a few different spaces, and every time was a spectacular and amazing experience. The first time I saw him was in 1993 at Maple Leaf Gardens when he was touring for the symbol album. He played the whole thing straight through followed by a selection of hits and fan favorites. There were great versions of She's Always in My Hair and The Max that night, and he encored with Partyman and 1999. It was pretty awesome.

In 1997 I saw him at the Warehouse, a spontaneous club gig that was announced the morning of the show. One of the guys I worked with lined up for tickets and got one for me because he knew I was a big fan. There's an electric energy in seeing big artists in small venues, and that night at the Warehouse the energy was exponentially more pronounced. Prince stayed away from the hits for the most part aside from Purple Rain and Raspberry Beret, and the rest of the show was a selection of gems that seemed chosen just for fans. He did a James Brown cover that night, a spirited run through 17 Days, a deep blues-y How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore, and a really sweet version of Take Me With U among other things. Seeing Prince in a small venue was a magical experience, something transcendent.

I went to see him again at the ACC in 2004. During the set he ordered pizza for everybody on the floor and he played a blistering cover of Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. Let's go Crazy, Purple Rain, a ton of other hits and tracks from "Musicology" were all part of the setlist that night. He did an awesome version of Shhh from "The Gold Experience", and the band vamped on a couple of Sheila E. tracks as well. It was another great night, another awesome concert from a superstar showman.

I got another chance to see him in 2015 when he came to the Sony Centre with 3rdEyeGirl. It was another last minute show with tickets going on sale the day before the gig, and it was a bit of a scramble but I was able to get a pair on the floor about fifteen rows back from the stage for Carolyn and I. While we were waiting for the show to begin we started talking to this guy sitting next to us who had brought his mother to see Prince 'cause she'd been a fan for as long as she could remember, but she'd never had a chance to see him before. During the show she brought out a pair of mini binoculars so she could see the stage better, and she passed them to Carolyn and I a few times so we could get a better view too. I'm glad she got to see him that night, it was a pretty blistering show. 3rdEyeGirl were an amazing back up band that evening, and each one of them had a chance to shine with solos interspersed throughout the set. There was a certain magic to their performance with Prince, a give and take between the four of them that spoke of great things to come.

The main set was mostly newer work from "Art Official Age" and "Lotusflow3r", even a track from "Emancipation", but it didn't matter that the songs weren't as familiar to anybody, they were still tight and funky and altogether awesome. Carolyn danced through the whole set, even though she didn't know any of the songs he played up until a slowed down take on Let's Go Crazy. For the first encore he played an Elvis Presley cover (our new friend with the binoculars was a big Elvis fan too she told us, so it was pretty much a dream come true for her...), followed by a heart stopping solo version of The Beautiful Ones (YESSSSSS...) and a really sweet Something in the Water (Does Not Compute). For the second encore he did a half hour medley of hits from across his career, and then he closed the night out with Nothing Compares 2 U. Bliss I tell you, sheer musical bliss...

But of all the times that I saw Prince perform, it was his last show in Toronto that will always stay perfectly etched in my memory. The Piano and a Microphone Tour was a free form set of shows that Prince had started doing in 2016, spontaneously announcing dates in a city a day or two before playing. There was no notice, no prior warning, rather he'd just show up in town to play a couple of gigs and then vanish into the night heading to another lucky city to do it all over again.

True to it's name, the idea was that the show was a solo performance by Prince, no band, just him and a piano playing whatever he felt like at the time, and given the depth of his catalog this promised to be a pretty amazing concert. I had been following setlists from earlier dates on the tour, and it looked as though pretty much anything was up for grabs during these gigs with deep album cuts, obscure singles, and surprising covers all making their way into the show. At a night in Melbourne earlier in the tour he ran through a collection of songs that included Little Red Corvette, The Max, and a cover of the Batman theme from the sixties TV show. That possibility and spontaneity were especially appealing to me so when he announced a pair of shows in Toronto at the Sony Centre I jumped at the opportunity to get a pair of tickets for Carolyn and I to see the second set.

We got to the Sony Centre about 930pm and they hadn't opened the doors yet, so the lineup snaked all the way around the venue until they let us in about 10pm. Our tickets were up in the rear balcony, but one of the joys of the Sony Centre is that it has great sound and great sightlines wherever you are in the venue so we weren't worried about being able to see anything. And of course, given the suggested stripped down nature of the show we weren't expecting a big theatrical presentation or anything, just Prince and a piano and a microphone as advertised. And that's exactly what we got. 

And it was spectacular...

He walked out from a door in the back of the stage to thunderous applause, just Prince wearing what looked like a pair of velvet pyjamas, and he sat down at the piano and started to play Joy in Repetition. I wouldn't say that's an obscure track but it's certainly not one of his more popular ones, more of a deep cut for the fans, and it was absolutely amazing. The story of a chance meeting in a bar unfolded with grace and style, just Prince singing and playing piano, and it was among the most riveting and captivating things I've ever seen, hypnotic, beguiling, magical.

What followed was a steady stream of music with hardly any breaks or pauses, a medley that ran on for most of the evening. Prince jammed on a tune for a verse and a chorus here, stretched out another song there, improvised and built something up elsewhere. It was an incredible display of talent, technical prowess, and the sheer glee of making music. I wish you all could have been there, it was really special.

There were some obvious choices like Little Red Corvette and Controversy, stripped down instrumentation bringing the songs to their core, demonstrating the strength in his songwriting and celebrating the catalog of work that Prince had made over the years. He touched on most of the albums that you wanted to hear, some cuts from "Sign o' the Times", a pair of singles from "Diamonds and Pearls", a little love to his early albums. As a longtime fan I can say that it was a perfect mixture of tracks, I mean, an artist like Prince, you're never going to hear everything you want to, but this setlist touched on enough of the things that you were hoping for and more so you couldn't help but be impressed.

He played songs by Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell, and at one point he did a cover of Linus and Lucy by Vince Guaraldi, yeah, that song from the Peanuts cartoons, Doo do do Dododo Doo Doo, and it really wasn't something you ever expected or imagined you'd see, but when it happened, well, of course it did. That's the kind of show that it was.

As one of his encores he played an iconic version of The Beautiful Ones, and the power in his voice, the range of emotions that he displayed during that song, there are no words to describe it. Even in a stripped down format that track stayed true to it's nature, it remained amazing and reiterated itself in my mind as one of my favorites, simply stunning.

His last encore was Purple Rain, and in hindsight that was the perfect choice, the song that changed his life and propelled his career into a whole new level. While there might be other Prince songs that I think of as my favorites, I can't deny that Purple Rain stands as his very best and most personal work, the song that captures the purest essence of the artist that is Prince. And on a night that featured such an extensive overview of his catalog, such a celebration of the music that he had made over the years, it seemed like the right ending for the show. 

A couple of weeks later I was at work when a colleague of mine called and asked if I had heard about Prince, and that's when I found out that he had died. And in a year that had already been filled with loss and death around me, his passing struck hard. Over the last few decades Prince had been a huge part of my musical world, an influence, an inspiration, an icon, and his music had been a consistent joy in my life. It didn't seem real, and the idea of living in a world without him seemed almost impossible to imagine. Even now I can't help but feel like the world is a worse place for his absence, a little bit less musical and a little bit less magical for his absence.

But as sad as his passing was and still is, when I listen to his music I'm reminded how very lucky I was to have experienced as much of it as I did, and I'll always be grateful for the contributions that Prince made to the soundtrack of my life. I'm grateful for all the songs, for all the shows, for all the little things and all of the big things that he did over the course of his career that made him so awesome. There's no doubt in my mind that we'll never see another artist quite like him, and I'm truly grateful to have had the chance to see him when I did.

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