The elusive Prince returns triumphant


"Y'all make me sorry I stayed away so long!" So crowed a jubilant Prince near the end of a powerhouse two-and-a-half-hour concert at the Sunrise Musical Theater, outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which opened his first American tour in more than five years. And judging from the first two night, this twelve-city theatre tour features the most accessible and freewheeling version of Prince since 1999 catapulted him to superstardom a decade ago.

At the Sunrise shows, the new up-close-and-personal Prince worked the crowd, joked with his musicians, played guitar in the aisles and even executed a glorious stage dive at the end of the first night, reducing the sold-out audience of 4000 Floridians and spring breakers (much older and whiter than Prince fans of yesteryear) to a sweaty mess. Perhaps most impressive, though, the shows marked the coming of age of his band, the New Power Generation, as a first-rate ensemble, fluid, versatile and whip-crack tight.

This tour is the centerpiece of a multimedia Prince blitz that began when he signed his highly publicized six-album contract with Warner Bros. last September. Though his fourteenth album, 0{+>, continues to hover in the middle regions of the charts five months after its release, it is sneaking up on sales of 2 million in the U.S. It seems likely the album will sell the 5 million worldwide necessary for Prince to receive a $10 million for his next album, as his new contract reportedly specifies.

While the emergence of the newly media-friendly Michael Jackson may render Prince the word's most famous recluse, Minneapolis's favorite son is also making moves to get closer to his fans. These first concerts and his selection of smaller venues for this tour exhibited this new intimacy despite some excessive staging. Unlike the elaborate sex-versus-God metaphors of the Lovesexy tour, this time the themes were simple and straightforward: sex, partying, more sex and showing off the smoking funk of the New Power Generation. "Can't nobody fuck with my band!" Prince exclaims repeatedly while putting the players through stop-on-a-dime turnarounds worthy of James Brown. Prince has also finally found a rap style with which he seems comfortable, a slower, more leisurely than the clipped barks he has grappled with in the past.

The first half of the show focused exclusively on his newest material. Starting with a pounding "My Name Is Prince," he played eleven of the sixteen songs of 0{+>'s "love opera," in which he struggles to win the heart of Mayte (the belly dancer who Prince describes as his latest "inspiration") from her family of Arabian royalty.

Though the lights and costumes were appropriately dramatic, the most notable element of the setting was something resembling Saran Wrap growing like kudzu on the keyboards. Some silly between-song skits -- including a "reporter" and film crew chasing Prince for an interview -- added up to a plot that made as little sense onstage as it does on the record, but it was most unobtrusive. (Prince did get a laugh the second night when the reporter asked, "Where have you been the last five years?" and he shot back, "Your mom's house.")

The album, while Prince's strongest in years , ultimately can't bear the weight of such close focus, but as drummer Michael Bland put it, "being on tour is like being a traveling salesman; you got to show off what you got." Even locked into a set list, Prince found new ways to enliven his material. The crunching groove of "The Continental" turned into a smooth, Philly-soul-style jam resembling Archie Bell and the Drells' party classic "Tighten Up." ("We'd never done it that way before," said guitarist Levi Seacer Jr. before the second show, "and it may never happen again.") Prince also premiered a new song at Sunrise, much to the band's surprise: a chugging, crowd-pleasing rocker titled "Peach."

A bombastic medley of "And God Created Woman" and "3 Chains o' Gold" made for an unsatisfying narrative conclusion to the set. But a stunning coda of the recent hit "7," featuring a lengthy, Middle Eastern-flavored multiple-guitar introduction, was one of the night's peaks.

The second half of the show was neither a simple greatest-hits collection nor a survey of the other three albums Prince has released since the Lovesexy tour of 1988. Instead, such Prince smashes as "Let's Go Crazy" and "1999" were juxtaposed with the obscure B side "Irresistible Bitch" and a blistering "She's Always in My Hair."

The second night's show, identical in song selection minus encores of "Cream," "1999" and "Baby I'm a Star," didn't have the steamrolling force of the opener. Its highlights, however, were even higher, including a majestic, ferocious "Purple Rain" and a show-stopping medley of the bedroom ballads "Insatiable" and "Scandalous" that had every woman in the place on her feet, screaming. (Said audience member Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, "I model myself on Prince -- I thought I got women at my shows, but not like this motherfucker!")

As for offstage Prince projects, the Joffrey Ballet debuted Billboards, a full-length work set to Prince songs, including an extended version of "Thunder," from Diamonds and Pearls, written specially for the company. Billboards, which presents four noted choreographers' interpretations of such Prince gems as "Sometimes It Snows in April" and "Computer Blue," opened in Iowa to rave reviews in January and went on to Chicago in March. (It will play in Washington, D.C. in June, Los Angeles in July and New York in November, among other stops.) In addition, Prince is producing several tracks for an upcoming Earth, Wind and Fire reunion album; ironically, fifteen years ago EWF leader Maurice White was approached to produce Prince's first album -- which White turned down. In the most extensive off the new efforts, before starting the tour Prince wrote ten songs for I'll Do Anything, a new James L. Brooks musical-comedy film starring Nick Nolte and Tracey Ullman due out in the fall.

The new high-profile Prince sang four songs from 0{+> in a rare television stop on The Arsenio Hall Show on February 25th. More surprisingly, he did an in-store performance and record signing at Atlanta's Turtle's Rhythm and Views, drawing more than 1000 fans (his signature of choice was the album-title symbol rather than a name). And on top of the usual onslaught of surprise club appearances that always accompanies a Prince tour, an invitation-only benefit show by Prince at the historic Apollo Theater for various underprivileged-children's groups in Harlem was slated for March 27th.

But all it really takes for people to remember why Prince is a superstar is for him to get back onstage. At Sunrise, he sang at peak form, danced up a storm, led chants, jumped from guitar to piano and from booty-shaking funk to skull-crushing rock with equal ease. After five years away from most of America, he reasserted himself as the hardest working man in show business today and the baddest motherfucker in the atmosphere. (RS 655)

Prince Retires -- Maybe
He says he's quitting studio work, but don't hold your breath

By Michael Goldberg

PRINCE TO RETIRE FROM STUDIO RECORDING. That was the headline of a press release faxed to the media on the evening of April 27th. Earlier that day, less than a year after Prince signed a recording and publishing deal with Warner Bros. Records potentially worth an estimated $100 million, Warner Bros. chairman Mo Ostin and company president Lenny Waronker were informed by Gilbert Davison, president of Paisley Park Enterprises, that Prince would not be delivering any more studio albums to the company.

Instead, the press release said, Prince would fulfill the remainder of the six-album deal -- for which he receives a per-album advance of $10 million -- with old songs from his immense library of "500 unreleased recordings." In that way, new Prince albums can be released "well into the twenty-first century." The statement, which was ent out by Prince's New York-based publicist Michael Pagnotta, also said that "after releasing fifteen albums in fifteen years, [Prince] is turning his creative talents to alternative media -- including live theater, interactive media, nightclubs and motion pictures."

The announcement was greeted with skepticism at Warner Bros., throughout the record business and even among some of Prince's associates. "Prince is a very mercurial fellow," said Eric Leeds, a saxophonist who has toured and recorded with Prince and who currently records solo albums for Prince's label, Paisley Park. "He could change his mind tomorrow. I just kind of chuckle when I hear those things. I say, 'Okay, here he goes again.'"

At Warner Bros., there was no official comment, but executives are apparently taking a low-key, somewhat amused approach to the news. "People were laughing," said a source at the company.

"Anything he says you have to take with a grain of salt," says Danny Goldberg, a senior vice-president at the Time Warner-owned Atlantic Records.

No official explanation from wither Prince or his employees was forthcoming. Those who know Prince have a few theories about the announcement. Some feel this could be Prince's way of expressing his disappointment with U.S. sales of his latest album, 0{+>, which are in the neighborhood of 2 million copies. The Warner Bros. source said that a week before the announcement, Prince had been in the office meeting with Ostin and Waronker "expressing his dissatisfactions and frustrations."

Eric Leeds thinks Prince may want to renegotiate some part of his deal. "Maybe there's a point in the new deal that he's not particularly thrilled with and he's saying, 'Well, let me play hardball with them for a minute,'" said Leeds.

Or it could be, as some current and former Prince business associates believe, that Prince is fed up with the rock-star treadmill. Alan Leeds, who was vice-president of Paisley Park Records until about eight months ago, and is Eric Leeds' older brother, said, "This is a guy who is simply uncomfortable with the confines of the 1990s music industry and the constraints it puts on a prolific artist.

"The idea that you're dictated to: 'Okay, you make a record this month, you release it that month, you sit on your ass for three months, you tour for three months, you sit on your ass for a nother three months' -- that's not the kind of guy Prince is," continued Leeds. "He's a guy who lives on the edge, who likes spontanaeity above all else. And all of those things about his lifestyle are discouraged by the structure of the music industry. It's an enormously frustrating existence for him." This is not the first time Prince has made a dramatic public anouncement. In April of 1985, just a few days before the conclusion of the Purple Rain tour, Prince announced he was going to stop touring for "two to three years." Prince's explanation at the time, as relayed via his then manager Steve Fargnoli: "Sometimes it snows in April."

"Five months after that we were in rehearsals for the next tour," said Eric Leeds. "And we were out playing gigs within a year."

Chances are that the retirement will be short-lived. In fact, a source who works with Prince says that the day after the press release was issued, the star was in an L.A. studio producing an album for his current band, the New Power Generation. "I can guarantee that if he comes up with another 'When Doves Cry,' the first thing he's going to do is go to Warner Bros. and say: 'Release this. Tomorrow!'" said Eric Leeds.

"There's only three things for sure in this life," said Alan Leeds. "We're all born, we all die, and Prince will make another record on of these days."


(RS 658)