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Live review: Prince's three shows at L.A. Live

March 29, 2009 | 11:36 am
Prince’s three-in-one concert experience Saturday at downtown’s L.A. Live nightlife complex often felt like a date with a special someone that wasn’t going quite as expected. You know how such evenings can be: Your beloved insists on making all the decisions; he (or she) directs the conversation toward unfamiliar topics; he makes you wait, but when he’s finally fully present, announces he can’t stay too long. Such a night can frustrate, but then it turns around completely on the strength of just one perfect, loving gesture. Despite many challenges, Prince still managed just that kind of metaphorical final kiss.

The circumstances were less than perfect. Expert at improvised set lists, Prince loves to stretch out, but this jaunt through the Nokia Theatre, the Conga Room and Club Nokia required a tighter song selection, which felt truncated compared with last year’s Coachella set and other recent high-profile gigs.

He also struggled with the sound system, notably during the opening Nokia Theatre show. A bad buzz afflicted his vocal microphone and the mix was weak in the middle. Later, a long line to get into the final show at Club Nokia left some fans frustrated, after they missed that ending set's first few songs.

Throughout the obstacle course, Prince noted the problems, but vowed to soldier on. Showing pique would have just wasted time; he had a concept to execute. With a new website, LotusFlow3r.com, just launched, and three albums hitting Target stores today, Prince was staging both a celebration and a marketing pitch.

None of the performances featured much new material, but each represented the mood of one of the new releases, already available for download on Prince’s website for a $77 subscription fee. The first show reflected the “old school” approach on “MPLSoUND”; the second, the guitar adventures of “LOtUSFLOW3r,” and the third focused on the smooth sensuality found on “Elixer,” even though that album’s main singer, Bria Valente, never took the stage.

The Nokia Theatre show was a crowd-pleaser despite atrocious sound. It featured hits such as “Kiss” and “1999” alongside covers including Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” (sung by a gangly audience member) and “Hollywood Swinging” by Kool & the Gang. The stage looked like an unexplored planet populated by jellyfish and pyramids; Prince wore a black and white ensemble that somehow seemed colorful. But technical problems really stopped this set from being as dynamic as it might have been.

Song selections included cuts that Prince performed at Coachella last year and others featured at his recent Oscar party at the Avalon. “You ever get the feeling that you just have too many hits?” he said before heading into yet another one; he didn’t pull too many surprises out of his silk pocket. Percussionist and former Prince protégé Sheila E. made a guest appearance, as she had at Coachella last year. The band, a streamlined version of Prince’s most frequently employed ensemble, never locked into a real groove.

The Conga Room show quickly made up for the glitches at the big theater. Bassist Sonny Thompson and drummer Michael Bland raised a powerful blues-rock ruckus; Prince was playing guitar with his teeth within minutes of taking the stage. As he settled into full guitar hero mode, ably backed by his old Minneapolis cronies (and harmonica player Frederic Yonnet, who took a flashy turn near the show’s end), Prince relaxed here was a set with excellent new tunes, cool obscurities, and strong, often nearly ecstatic playing.

Having traded in chic loungewear and elaborate props for flashy but practical working clothes, Prince and his players built a sound steeped in the blues and psychedelic funk. They reworked “All Shook Up,” a signature Elvis Presley song, in ways that would have made Sly Stone proud. They paid homage to Jimi Hendrix with a version of his “Spanish Castle Magic,” and traced a through line within Prince’s own repertoire, from the playful “When U Were Mine” to the heavy new “Dreamer,” that brought it all back to some cosmic juke joint.

After the high of the Conga Room, the set at Club Nokia came as something of a surprise. It shouldn’t have; following on the path of the new albums, it was time for something sexy and down-tempo. Fans hoping Prince might feed the fire he’d just ignited next door — or others, just arriving, who wished for another bunch of hits — had to adjust when a jazzy quiet storm descended.

In a blazer reminiscent of a disco ball, fronting a group anchored by the Brazilian keyboard artist Renato Neto, Prince presented himself as the master of the chill-out room. He let the band stretch out, with Neto dominating but bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer John Blackwell also finding room to solo. He departed the stage for long periods, or stood at the side, enjoying his collaborators’ jams.

There were few familiar songs, and though Prince’s falsetto was lethal when deployed, he mostly chose to lay back and let the lush music envelop the crowd. Obscurities like “In a Large Room With No Light” clearly thrilled the knowledgeable few, but the band served little familiar fare to the partygoers sipping the purple cocktails the club was selling for the occasion.

Finally, the long date was over — and Prince pulled out the nectar. The 2 a.m. curfew had past, but out came the great vocalist Chaka Khan, delighting the crowd with her soul classic, “Sweet Thing.” The man of the hour then proceeded with a string of his most luscious ballads, the best of which was a version of “The Beautiful Ones” that was far more triumphant than heartbroken. Right then, Prince seemed to know he’d won the race: He was the lover of the hour, after another endless night.

—Ann Powers

Photo by Afshin Shahidi. No photography was allowed at Prince's L.A. Live shows.