Prince covered ample musical ground Monday night at United Center aiming for more than your average concert experience on the first of his three night, "Welcome 2 Chicago" residency... But ultimately fell short of that goal due to a frustrating finish that proved to be only the beginning of an antagonistic evening and early morning The Artist had in store for his fans...
Doors opened Monday night at United Center at 5PM... and Prince took the stage just after 9PM. Part of his "Welcome 2 Chicago" residency, this week's concerts aim to bring awareness to a number of issues and celebrate community... and Monday night, fans had plenty of time to get familiar with all of it.
Walking the United Center concourse before the show, I saw booths promoting women's rights and sustainable communities. A band performed in the middle of the concourse as fans registered to vote just down the hall. Other fans took time to paint signs, masks and more at another table.
A DJ spun on the venue floor as fans slowly filtered in and Sly and the Family Stone echoed throughout United Center. The vibe was good and the idea cool. Videos from a variety of artists associated with Prince played on the massive video screens overhanging the stage as crews made last minute adjustments. Morris Day, Chaka Khan and more were displayed. At one point, probably not coincidentally, I believe I also saw a Mavis Staples video. After all, the Chicago native recorded two albums for Prince's Paisley Park label in the early nineties.
And of course the color purple was ubiquitous. People everywhere were wearing it. Portable lights were set up in the concourse spreading it. And the stage itself was bathed in it throughout the night.
But Prince's idea of making this more than mere concert and into something more closely resembling an event was really summed up by the VIP packages offered to concertgoers on the main floor surrounding "the symbol" shaped stage.
Personally, I've never been one for the overpriced, "look at me!" type of packages that permeate the arena concertgoing experience these days. This VIP experience was really something else (the perfect example of attending a concert to be seen as opposed to listen).
Fans sat immediately stage side, in a roped off area from the rest of the floor, at high tables cabaret style. And while I don't even want to begin to think what something like that ran the 1%, I suppose Prince deserves some credit for at least giving high society their money's worth. Fans (like George Lopez who Prince singled out from the stage) were dressed to the nines and the evening did indeed feel less like a concert and more like an event.
"We're gonna have fun tonight. Take your mind off all the problems outside!" said an excited Prince early on in an interesting juxtaposition between $164 tickets and the aforementioned VIP treatment and the economy which I'm assuming might rank high on the list of "problems" from which he supposedly sought to offer fans an escape.
The first of the two hour set focused primarily on covers, serving to remind those in attendance of two things:
- 1.) Prince knows his music history. He's always been a student of music. He appreciates it. He loves it. He lives it. This is a good thing.
- 2.) He's been a party to more hits than most remember. Strangely, there were times when it seemed this concert was specially constructed to make sure you remembered that fact, almost desperately so (IE: At one point, he made reference to it being a "Manic Monday." He wrote that song for The Bangles and even though he didn't play it Monday, the mere mention of it came off as a forced attempt to remind us that he has written many, many hits. We're aware!).
Monday night, what Prince dubbed the "NPG Orchestra" spread out across the stage: rhythm section and backing vocalists on stage with a massive horn section stationed at the soundboard. "Pop Life" came second in the set and placed heavy emphasis on the New Power Generation as both keyboard and then trumpet solos accented a jazz interlude therein. Without skipping a beat, "Pop Life" became "Musicology" and saw Prince at his smoothest. Capable of wearing so many hats while on stage, for this particular moment, Prince was pure frontman working the packed crowd from every corner of his massive stage, sporting his trademark dance moves throughout. He took control of the festivities in a manner unparalleled and it was impressive.
Clad in a black and white suit, Prince moved deftly from full on funk to bluesy, Gospel tinged roll, channelling both James Brown and Chicago legend Curtis Mayfield early on in the first hour.
The covers continued but this time in a more upbeat fashion and one that was certainly more familiar to Prince as he dabbled in the works of his former proteges: first with both "The Bird" and "Jungle Love" from Morris Day and The Time and then via Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life" (though it should be noted that unlike his last Chicagoland appearances at Allstate Arena in 2004, when she was a member of the band, on this occasion Miss Escovedo was not in attendance... which made the performance seem kind of strange. Great... but strange). Slower material followed as Prince was joined by vocalist Shelby Johnson for nevertheless strong renditions of "Nothing Compares 2 U" and Sarah McLachlan's "Angel."
"Check me out... This is my guitar!" Finally at 10:15PM, over an hour into the show, Prince picked up a guitar. And from there the show gained momentum as he moved to the hits for hour two. The stretch of songs that included "Raspberry Beret," "Cream," and a swinging rendition of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Till you Get Enough," closed the main set in stellar fashion.
Prince introduced a version of "Purple Rain" that was surprisingly light on guitar (though certainly still good) to open the first encore. And the second encore started strong too opening with "Kiss."
But from there, things misfired.
Sans his stellar band, Prince sang brief snippets of some of his biggest hits ("When Doves Cry," "I Would Die 4 U," "Sign 'O' the Times," etc.) over samples rolled out by his DJ. His band was nowhere to be seen... which was a shame. As a student of music, Prince is clearly quite aware that electronic dance music is all the rage right now. This felt like a calculated effort to show fans that he gets that, that he's "hip." But the thing I've always admired about Prince is that he made that seem effortless. The moment Prince steps on a stage, that much is obvious.
And in what's been touted as a series of shows with a hyper-local focus, "Sign 'O' the Times" would've been better served in all its glory as opposed to a forgettably brief snippet. A full performance could've served as an apropos statement on the level of youth violence that has plagued the city of Chicago this summer (especially lately and at times with music at its root). This was an opportunity missed.
From there, things got worse.
"Chicago, I don't want to preach but we need to love one another... See how easy that is? I don't need to be here, I want to be here. I want your love. The American dream from us to you. Listen!" said Prince as he introduced "Purple Rain."
So clearly, right now, Prince believes he has a message and wants to be heard. The "Welcome 2" series of local residencies account for some of his most high profile shows in nearly ten years and he's taken uncharacteristic steps like opening up to local media to spread the word.
And repeatedly, that message seems to be something like this: Things are tough, we have a lot of work to do as a society and people need to help one another. Fantastic in theory and kudos to Prince for putting it forward.
But then he left the stage following his second encore and that message was lost.
Any concertgoer knows the show ain't over 'till the lights come up. So fans stood screaming and cheering. And screaming and cheering some more. And some more. This process started at 11:05PM when Prince left the stage. It continued as I had had enough and walked out of the United Center to head to work around 11:30PM. And from what I can tell from the reactions on Twitter, it continued until nearly midnight at which point Prince finally returned to the stage in front of a largely empty audience apparently playing "Little Red Corvette" and "1999." Seriously? An hour encore break?
So Prince tricked half his audience into leaving his show early. Classy.
And yet for some, the evening was only beginning.
Earlier in the encore, Prince encouraged concertgoers to join him at House of Blues for what was being billed as the "Official Purple After Jam" ($89-164 in advance, $114-164 at the door). To be fair, the event never mentioned Prince as a performer... But from Prince's own words on stage and an assortment of media reports over the last week, it was certainly implied.
Doors were scheduled to open for that event at 10PM. According to a variety of Tweets that I read from extremely disgruntled concertgoers at 4AM this morning, Prince "protege" Andy Allo took took the stage for a few songs backed by members of the NPG at some point between 2:30 and 3AM before Prince finally graced the crowd with his presence around 3:45AM to announce that the Chicago Police had supposedly shut the show down.
At one point at House of Blues, it seems Prince appeared in an opera box. And apparently he peeked through the stage curtain once too, teasing fans. So the antagonism displayed earlier at United Center continued.
Which brings me back again to the message and lofty goals Prince clearly had for these "Welcome 2" concerts... Because it's pretty difficult for me to put any stock in something like that when it's delivered by somebody who really doesn't seem to have much respect for his audience.
If you're heading to either United Center or House of Blues on Tuesday or Wednesday there is one thing you can put some faith in and that's the fact that Prince prides himself on delivering radically different shows night in and night out. So hopefully the next two nights will be a more pleasant experience... Because, really, Prince's goals for this residency are admirable and there truly were some amazing moments Monday musically... But at the end of the day, spending money to go to a concert shouldn't result in a challenging or frustrating experience. In fact, it should've been the very escape Prince himself referenced early on Monday from the United Center stage.