Prince had not played Chicago in 8 years, but his first of 3 shows on Monday, September 24, 2012, was well worth the wait. If you’re going, make sure that you don’t bail before the final third encore, either, or you’ll miss all his Big Hits. There were many naysayers complaining about the long delay before he reappeared, in a different plain black outfit, to play his big hits, because it was a work night and at least half of the crowd had gone home. There was also disappointment at the House of Blues, where the rumor was that Prince would be present and play. He was present, but he didn’t play. For me—someone who didn’t have to go to work early in the morning—I was willing to wait (Maybe it’s all the waiting you do at political rallies that has me conditioned.) There was a long wait at the beginning of the concert and the delay between the end of the first encore and my move to the floor and all the “hits” was substantial: also more than an hour. So, it was midnight before the evening ended, after the 8 p.m. ticketed start time was also delayed.
I saw Prince play at the (Moline, IL) Civic Center years ago, when he was fighting with his record label, had just started using the symbol and played only one recognizable “hit” from his catalogue: “Raspberry Beret.” Although the 6 of us waited all night for “Little Red Corvette” or “1999” or “Purple Rain” or “When Doves Cry,” I don’t remember that we heard any of them. There were 2 large Chow dog-like statues set up on each side of a proscenium stage that reminded me of a fancy Chinese restaurant. There was none of the dancing that I had heard was so mesmerizing in his act.
When Prince played the United Center in Chicago on the first of 3 nights of shows on Monday, September 24, 2012, there was lots of dancing. The stage, itself, was the now-familiar Prince emblem. The Purple One was clad in black and white, in a half-white (left side) and half-black (right side) suit that made me think of an old Cesar Romero role…[it may have been the Joker, on television]…where his face was painted half-white and half-black.
The singer was accompanied by a 20-member ensemble and, my seat-mate said, was either rolled in or carried in in a box. (I missed this, as the smoke machines and the fake sound of a rainstorm projected against the Prince symbol with lightning on the giant overhead screen had practically obscured the stage to the point that I was afraid Prince was having trouble finding the stage.)
The concert was scheduled to start at 8:00 p.m. I was nearly an hour late but missed nothing. There was no “lead-in” band, but there were many fancy electrical things and color changes for the stage, onto which were projected swirling patterns and polka dots at other points in the show. At several points, Prince climbed atop the electrified grand piano to sing and dance.
For this show and the extra one added on the third day of his performances in the “Welcome to” format he has used in other cities, 11 horns fill the arena, giving the band a large sound. Prince has said, “My favorite instrument is the band,” which he fine-tuned during rehearsals in his 70,000 square foot headquarters southwest of Minneapolis.
Prince last performed in Chicago in 2004, pulling in more than $87 million and reviving his career. Now 54, he has not released an album since 2010 because, as he told Gregg Kot of the Chicago “Tribune,” in a September 23rd interview, he doesn’t see much point in releasing albums when: “We’re in a singles market again. It’s crazy for me to walk into that with a new album. Young people have decided they like to listen to music in a certain way, through earbuds, and that’s fine with me as long as it doesn’t bother them that they’re not hearing 90% of the music that way.” He adds, “But I don’t have to record to eat or to get out of debt or to pay my taxes. I looked forward to the day I could do this. Freedom is an interesting thing. You have to work really hard to get free.”
Prince did many covers during the show— (too many, according to my seatmate, since Prince’s own catalogue is so deep) —and some were surprising (“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “The Arms of an Angel”). There was a semi-odd gospel song featuring the 3 female back-up singers and Prince was extremely generous in sharing the stage with a bald African-American female singer named Shelby. Shelby was an unusual choice, compared to Prince’s other female protégés over the years. She sang well, but we all paid to hear Prince and Shelby got a lot of his onstage time.
There were also some minor technical glitches where the amplifiers were heard to hum and drone. At one point, Prince tossed the guitar with the leopard-skin strap over the edge of the stage to a stagehand. Shelby’s microphone did not not work properly at one point, so Prince gave her his.
But, more than anything, Prince seemed to want the crowd to enjoy themselves, constantly cheerleading with phrases like, “I can’t hear you” and “Right now, I’d like to hear my favorite sound in the world—you!” He instructed the 3 back-up singers to go out into the crowd and bring audience members up onstage to dance. He also danced a lot in tiny red heels (I’ll bet his feet hurt at the end of the long show) and if you want(ed) to hear “Little Red Corvette,” “1999” and the songs I had come for, you had to stay till the very end, ending at midnight and enduring a 20-minute wait while Prince changed and many moved from the nosebleed sections to the floor as people departed before the final set.
As usual, I was seated next to a Bobblehead who howled and danced like Randy Quaid might have danced in the National Lampoon movie “Vacation.” I thought he was going to hurt either himself or me.
Prince knows the sound he wants from his big band. He told Gregg Kot: “Remember the scene in the movie ‘Amadeus’ where he’s dying, and he’s hearing the music in his head? It becomes impossible to explain. He doesn’t have the vocabulary. Now, I’m short—literally and also when I speak—and it’s easy to get all ‘Can’t you hear this? Can’t you hear what I’m hearing?’ And so I use humor when I feel my blood pressure going up.” He attributes his longevity as an artist to being a practicing Jehovah’s Witness for the past 20 years.
Of earlier times, he said, “I nearly had a nervous breakdown on ‘The Purple Rain’ tour in 1984 because it was the same every night. It’s work to play the same songs the same way for 70 shows. To me, it’s not work to learn lots of different songs so that the experience is fresh to us each night.” He also attributes his longevity to personal changes in his life since the 80s and 90s.
“The world is so jagged. I like smooth waves. It’s the way I live now. In the 90s, we had a lot of crazy people in here. Now, no one argues, no one swears, no one smokes, and no one talks harsh. We all enjoy each other. You don’t know what that’s like till you start living like that, because, for a long time, I didn’t. It was affecting me in my head, which, in turn, affected me in my throat. I changed the way I operate. A lot of my contemporaries didn’t. That’s the reason I’m still here and a lot of them aren’t.”
The show was very enjoyable, especially when I think back to the snoozer I saw at Moline, Illinois’ Civic Center (“The Mark of the Quad Cities” it was called then). This one was up-tempo and lively and designed to please and entertain. As Prince reminisced with Gregg Kot of the “Tribune,” that’s the way he likes it: “I remember those Park West shows in Chicago that I played when I was just starting out. I’ll dream about the Park West sometimes. I can see it so clearly in my dreams. That wide-open look from the stage, the people right up on you. Those were life-changing shows.”