“Jam of the Year” was the perfect title for The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’s return to the American concert stage. Last Friday’s two-hour performance at the Nashville Arena underscored the fact that Princeexcuse me, The Artistis no longer interested in dazzling crowds with snappy songwriting smarts or with elaborate stage shows involving ejaculating guitars. Instead, the diminutive, sinewy man from Minnesota came to town to jam on the groove. Throughout the show, he concentrated on expansive funk songs built around rhythmic interplay and elastic tempos.
Unfortunately, that meant The Artist skipped or skimmed over some of his greatest contributions to pop music. For the most part, the show ignored a sizable chunk of his best tunes, and many that did appear were crammed into two solo medleys, both of which offered only desultory snippets of melodies and choruses. A solo electric guitar segment, performed early in the concert, featured “Alphabet St.” (which included crowd-pleasing references to “Tennessee”) and the great “When U Were Mine”; a later solo piano segment included painfully brief portions of “Delirious,” “Diamonds and Pearls,” and “The Beautiful Ones.”
For the majority of the show, however, The Artist got on the good foot, mimicking James Brown, Sly Stone, and Parliament/ Funkadelic’s George Clinton. As his band stretched out into lengthy, groove-driven tunes, he worked the stage with sensual, athletic dance steps that appeared to be a combination of inspired spontaneity and planned choreography. Acting more as song-leader than singer, the frontman repeatedly cajoled the crowd into singing along with him. He’d set them up with exaggerated lead-ins, then react with fanciful steps and quick spins when they responded on cue.
This strategy worked best when the songs were worth the energy both he and the crowd put into them. It’s hard to imagine anyone else working an audience into such a wild celebration as he did on “Sexy MF,” a song made to be performed onstage. Just as The Artist reached the chorus, he stepped aside from the microphone, and more than 10,000 dancing fans pointed at him and screamed in unison, “You sexy motherfucker!” As the response washed over him, the singer struck a pose, his hands theatrically brushing through his hair, as if it were perfectly natural to hear these words shouted at him. He then jumped into another elaborate dance routine, setting up the crowd to chant the words with even more enthusiasm the next time around. It was one of the most audacious and exhilarating moments I’ve ever witnessed at a rock concert.
Unfortunately, only a few songs“Li’l Red Corvette,” “Gett Off,” “Kiss,” the encore-ending “When Doves Cry”afforded such climactic highs. The show was more tease than release, although The Artist’s incredibly tuneful, rangy voice and amazing physical dexterity offered more excitement than most current pop stars can manage.
The opening theme, “Jam of the Year,” set the stage for the whole show. Taken from the Artist’s recent album, Emancipation, the song lacked the ferocity of Prince’s earlier concert openers, which included “Let’s Go Crazy” and “1999” (both of which were left out of the Nashville show). Nonetheless, “Jam of the Year” did set a jazzy, flexible groove that got the eager crowd on its feet. It worked nicely into the second song, a surprising yet appropriate version of James Brown’s “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothin’.” But the crowd didn’t truly erupt until a spoken-word break led into “Purple Rain,” a powerful song that emphasized just how distinctive The Artist’s older hits areespecially in a set featuring several newer, weaker tunes.
For his part, The Artist focused as much attention as possible on two cuts from Emancipation, “Face Down” and his cover of Joan Osborne’s hit, “One of Us.” Both songs represent two of his current lyrical obsessions: “Face Down” is a hilarious, hip-hop-styled put-down of Warner Bros. Records and the corporate recording industry, while “One of Us” gives the singer the chance to speak about spirituality in universal terms.
Both of these songs received the most embellished introductions of the night. Prior to the funky and invigorating “Face Down,” in which The Artist finds a multitude of ways to tell record executives to kiss his creative ass, he repeatedly warned parents that if they had young children in tow, this would be a good time to take them into the lobby. While the song did contain a decent amount of indecent talk, songs like “Sexy MF” contained more obscenities, while performances of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” featured more conspicuously sexual stage moves. Apparently, what concerned the artist about “Face Down” was its threats of violent behavior; unlike the majority of America and its entertainment industry, The Artist believes that subjecting young minds to violence carries more potential for damage than exposing them to dirty words or sexual language.
On “One of Us,” written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters, The Artist transformed Joan Osborne’s meditative rendition into a rousing number that celebrated the existence of God rather than questioning it. Asking the crowd to chant the lines, “Yeah, yeah, God is great/yeah, yeah, God is good,” The Artist altered the meaning of the song, emphasizing a more traditional take on the lyrics.
In the end, it’s impossible to watch The Artist and not be impressed by his ability to work a crowd with nearly invisible cues. Even with the hand-over-head claps and the occasional interspersing of “O-Weee-O” chants (a routine he borrowed from The Wizard of Oz for the Batman soundtrack), The Artist managed to lift the crowd’s energy and enthusiasm without relying too often on overworked showbiz clichés. Modern-day vaudevillians like Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks would do well to take note.
Even so, The Artist’s show lacked the compact punch and mind-bending outrageousness of his concerts from the early and mid-’80s. Moreover, comparing the Nashville set list to the songs in The Artist’s catalog, one can’t help but imagine how much better the concert would have been with crisper pacing and a more judicious song selection.
But maybe that’s why Prince Rogers Nelson is emphasizing artistry in his stage name; after all, he didn’t choose to call himself The Entertainer or The Hitman or The King of Pop. His battles with Warner Bros., which ended prior to his pointedly titled Emancipation album, raged over how frequently he would release new work (he wanted more, they wanted less) and over the lack of radio hits in his latter-day collections.
The Artist, it seems, wants to let the music simply roll out of him; he’s no longer willing to bend to pressures from outside forces. (During the show he repeatedly shouted, “Don’t let no one tell you what to do.”) For now, he’s delivering long, slinky jams that emphasize the pleasures of sex, the importance of spiritual reflection, and the need to be who we are. As a jam-happy bandleader, he’s as entertaining as any major U.S. star on the road today. Even if his show wasn’t a total success, it was a still pleasure to see him back onstage, where he belongs.
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