PRINCE IN EUROPE: A PREVIEW OF HIS NEW SHOW
BY KURT LODER
IT'S FOUR IN THE MORNING, May 15th, at Quasimodo, a small, black-walled Berlin jazz cellar, but the beer is still flowing, and fresh hash smoke curls languidly through the hot, stuffy air. Some 300 people are packed into the place, most of them lucky holdovers from a set much earlier in the evening by the expatriate American singer Joy Ryder. Now they are crushed around the club's tiny stage, staring in popeyed wonder at the totally unexpected mystery gig currently under way.
There are three men in long, hooded robes on stage -- one playing sax, another bass, the third wringing wondrous sounds out of a Fairlight synthesizer. There is an amazing woman playing drums -- it's Sheila E. And at center stage, wearing a rhinestone-spangled black leather jacket and at least three different kinds of dangling earrings, his heroically coiffed hair gathered into a small ponytail at the back, stands a little guy with a peach-colored guitar. Yes, it's Prince.
"Wanna go home?" he asks, peering out at the crowd with a coy smile.
"Me neither," he says, then glances at the band. "I think we oughta play the blues in G." A flurry of T-Bone Walker-style guitar lines suddenly fills the room, modulating quickly into a series of unmistakable Hendrixisms. The song is Jimi's "Red House," sort of. "There's a beach house over yonder," Prince sings, in a playful approximation of the original lyrics. "That's where my sugar stays...." He shouts out another verse or two and then takes off into a wild, glass-rattling guitar solo that makes jaws drop around the room and jacks up the temperature maybe another ten degrees.
It has been a long and amazing night, and there's still no end in sight. Many hours before, Prince and his new ten-member group, fresh from warm-up gigs in Sweden (they'll reach the U.S. sometime in August) -- played the fifth show of their 1987 European tour at West Berlin's Deutschlandhalle to a riotous response. It was Prince's first appearance in the divided city, and local scribes were already clapping together reviews centered on such words as genius and fantastic and marveling at the show's tech data: the thirteen trucks required to carry the elaborate stage set, the 240,000 watts of lighting, the 110,000 watts of amplification, the fourteen wardrobe trunks, two for Prince alone. In short, the first of Prince's two sold-out concerts in Germany's hippest city was an unqualified success -- at least for the approximately 12,000 people who danced and cheered their way through it.
The Prince camp, however, was less than totally pleased. There were some minor missed cues, and the rhythms of the tour hadn't yet settled into a satisfying groove. It had also been a disconcerting day: several members of the band had spent the morning visiting East Berlin and were still weirded out by the ugly hassling they got from the Volkspolizei gorillas on the eastern side of the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing. (Backing singer Cat Glover, who had rather rashly made the trip wearing a hot-pink suit and a white navy officer's hat, had been detained at length over a visa foul-up.) There was a certain fatigue factor at work as well. Three of the musicians -- bassist Levi Seacer, saxaphonist Eric Leeds, and keyboard phenom Matt Fink -- do double duty in Madhouse, the jazz-instrumental quartet that opens each show, and might have been subconsciously husbanding their energies in anticipation of this postconcert surprise gig that Prince had laid on. So, while the first concert at the Deutschlandhalle had been extraordinarily good by any normal standard, it hadn't been great -- which is Prince's standard.
But this surprise set at Quasimodo has been wonderfully invigorating. Madhouse opened up, blowing straight, muscular jazz and feeling more at home here than in front of the rock-funk crowds drawn to Prince concerts. Then Prince popped onstage, commandeered a synth and led the group into a steaming rendition of "Strange Relationship," from the Sign o' the Times album. That evolved into an extended jam ("Just keep on top of it!" Prince shouted), followed by the Hendrix workout. Next came a red-hot version of "Bodyheat," the James Brown dance classic, followed by a delicate and beautifully sung "Just My Imagination," the old Temptations hit, with more band members crowding onstage to join in. "Housequake," another song from the Sign LP, with Sheila E. whomping out a monster beat, loosened the roof on the place, and the closer, "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," with Prince briefly taking over on drums, blew the sucker completely off. The crowd was a puddle of glee, most patrons unable to believe what they'd just seen (and free of charge). Then, quicker than you could say, "Elvis has left the building," Prince was gone.
This hour-long off-the-cuff jam -- a rare up-close demonstration of Prince's sensational powers as an instrumentalist, an improviser and (lest we forget) a singer -- was apparently just the tonic the whole troupe needed. By the following night, considerably refreshed and still buzzing from the Quasimodo gig, Prince and his band were primed to kill -- and proceeded, unforgettably, to do so.
The Friday-night crowd, another sellout, was already on its feet and screaming as an ocean of smoke poured out onto the stage. From somewhere within this impenetrable fog there erupted an abstract barrage of Hendrixian guitar sirens. A purple spotlight cut through the haze, revealing Prince in a long black leather coat and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses, playing his peach-toned axe. As the electro-thump drumbeat that animates the title track of Sign o' the Times boomed through the hall, he began singing, and a back-light spot flashed on, silhouetting Cat Glover -- clad in the black bra and bikini briefs she would wear through most of the show -- gyrating wildly on an elevated platform at stage right. As the number built to a crescendo, the rest of the group came trooping down a long, winding ramp at stage left, each pummeling a drum with marching-band precision. Joining Prince, they spread out n the stage, beating out a resounding tattoo. It was an exhilarating entrance.
Then the lights went out, and the extraordinary stage set sizzled to life. An elaborate cityscape built on two levels, it echoes the cover of Sign o' the Times: a towering, impressionistic metropolis festooned with flashing neon signs -- UPTOWN, FUNK CORNER, BAR & GRILL, GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS. With all the lights popping on and off, the effect was that of a giant pinball machine. The band launched into the rollicking "Play in the Sunshine." On the stage level were Prince, bassist Seacer, rhythm guitarist Miko Weaver and backup vocalists Glover (whose picture on the sleeve of the "Sign" single has been widely mistaken to be Prince in drag), Greg Brooks and Wally Safford (two former Prince bodyguards). Elevated above them, and all but buried within her drum set, was Sheila E. And on the second tier, high above the stage, stood the two horn players, sax man Leeds and trumpeter Matt "Atlanta Bliss" Blistan, and keyboardists Fink and Boni Boyer.
Over the next ninety minutes, Prince and his extraordinary group ran, jumped, crawled and danced their way tirelessly through nineteen songs, ten of them from Sign o' the Times. Some numbers (the almost balladic version of "Little Red Corvette," for instance) were essentially abbreviated acknowledgments of past hits, but Prince did pull out the stops for certain oldies -- in particular a thunder-and-lightning performance of "Purple Rain" turned the house into a swaying sea of upraised arms. Equally memorable was the furious run-through of "1999" that closed the main part of the show, and the ultrafunk attack on "Kiss" that ended the first encore.
But in general it was the new material that was most powerfully presented. "Housequake" lived right up to its title and then some. The razor-riffed "Hot Thing" and the irresistibly exuberant "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" came across as instant and undeniable hits. On a steamier note, "If I Was Your Girlfriend" provided a perfect erotic set piece: as the song slithered to a close, Prince and the barely clad Glover, embracing before a giant, pink plastic heart, slowly went tilting back upon it into an unambiguous missionary positions as two neon signs high above the stage alternately flashed the words SEX and LOVE.
Throughout all of this, the band was spectacular. Prince has been listening to a lot of Duke Ellington and preelectric Miles Davis lately, and the show, while louder and maybe even funkier than ever, was also mightily enriched with jazz flourishes. The result, quite often, was an almost orchestral rock-jazz synthesis that was both harmonically exciting and (thanks to Sheila E. -- surely the world's hottest drummer in high-heeled pumps) relentlessly funky.
And the best came last. Prince started "The Cross" alone and shirtless, strumming the simple opening chords on his guitar as lighting effects flickered behind the darkened cityscape above him. Then the song started to build -- drums wading in, then fully cranked guitars, then the full band -- until the number attained an enormous, hall-shaking roar, with Prince soloing off into the stratosphere as a shower of mulitcolored silk flowers rained onto the stage. From there, the band jumped straight into "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," which had the whole crowd chanting and stomping along with such abandon that certain far sections of the balcony seemed in danger off crashing to the main floor. Prince was out the stage door, into the limo and halfway back to his hotel before the cheering stopped.