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Live review: Prince at the Forum, April 14

April 15, 2011 | 11:39 am

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Chastity belts -- even metaphorical ones -- hinder rocking. No performer has built a more ecstatic three-decade career by channeling carnal desires than the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Watching one of the sexiest men on Earth trying to perform a PG show is like watching Kobe Bryant trying to play basketball with his shoelaces tied together. Prince wanted the room to get hot Thursday night, during the first of a promised 21-night stand at the storied but aged Forum. But the Jehovah’s Witness had to keep his libido in check.

 "I’m in rehab!" he chided, as he mischievously played the opening chords to his old masturbation ode "Darling Nikki," then quickly changed tunes. The man who used to make wild love to his guitar now apparently views eroticism as an addiction. "This is an abstinence ring!" he protested as he shrugged off another old musical temptation.

Tension between sin and salvation, blues and gospel, has fueled the fire of many great singers, including Little Richard -- whom Prince more and more resembles -- and Al Green, whom he increasingly sounds like. The pull of Prince’s youthful drive whipped him into a sort of existential fervor on the 1982 hit "Little Red Corvette"; he tweaked the lyrics -- "A body like yours ought to be in my jail" -- as the reformer wrestled with the rocker.

There was a feeling of imprisonment, that the indefatigable, elfin erstwhile glyph was trapped in an identity crisis. The veteran performer played in fits and lulls, seemingly unable to get the pacing right. There were several false starts; the show began 90 minutes after the announced curtain time, and the lights and house music went off repeatedly before comedian George Lopez finally took the stage, announcing Prince with the intro to "Let’s Go Crazy." There were false endings too; more than half the house cleared when the lights came on after one encore, only to have Prince and his old cohort Sheila E. return for her song "The Glamorous Life," and an additional half hour of music.

 Still, even an off show for Prince is a night to remember, especially if you paid only $25. He certainly didn’t skimp, playing for more than three hours. At 52, he looks gorgeous, tiny and trim even in heels, like Peter Pan with a lascivious grin. He has a solid band, although, with three keyboard players, they have a tendency to play quiet-storm schmaltz. And even without the smut, he has an incredible catalog to draw on: "Purple Rain," "Uptown," "Controversy" and "When Doves Cry" were among the hits played Thursday.

Prince tried to substitute spiritual energy for sexual, creating a revival atmosphere (a la Al Green). He also celebrated his black roots. "Welcome to the 'hood," he said by way of introduction. He announced that this would be the first of a series of Forum shows -- every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, beginning April 21, "for as long as you will have us." This extended L.A. stay on the Welcome 2 America tour is intended to boost the fortune of the struggling former Lakers home. "With your help we can save this place," he said, sounding more like a community activist than a legendarily mysterious star.

With the cheap seats (as well as expensive VIP tickets that could get you on-stage), Prince is trying to get in touch with his fan base. Unfortunately, there were a fair number of empty chairs Thursday. In an old showman’s trick, the singer repeatedly sought affirmation from the audience: "Is it OK if I play guitar?" (Yes; I wish he had played it more.) "Can I stay?" These were rhetorical questions, but for the first time in 29 years of seeing Prince perform live, I also sensed insecurity. We love you, Prince. Now please, play "Darling Nikki."

RELATED:

Prince at the Forum: Three hours, massive setlist, many medleys

Prince keeps things affordable at the Forum for $25, but how close does that get you?

Prince announces first set of Forum dates

-- Evelyn McDonnell

 Photo: iPhone photo of Prince at the Forum. Credit: Tony Pierce / Los Angeles Times

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