Prince at the Troubadour (Review)

Prince Performs On Stage 2011
Jens Dige/AFP/Getty Images

US singer Prince performs at the Roskilde Festival, some 30 kms west of Copenhagen July 4, 2010. The festival, attended by some 75,000 people, runs until July 4.

The singer shakes up his 21-show Los Angeles run with an intimate, often-thrilling evening of improvisational music.

About a half-hour into Prince’s show at the tiny Troubadour in West Hollywood, an audible murmur went through the floor crowd. It was the realization and/or acceptance of the fact that this wasn’t going to be a greatest-hits workout.

It certainly was not. Instead, the little hall was treated to album cuts, instrumentals and covers -- a free-form amalgam of musical genres mixed into an often-thrilling 140 minutes of anti-arena Prince. There was no trapdoor entrance, backing throng or even dancing (OK, a little near the end). And a late-set take on “Pop Life” was his only hit single he played.

But doubtless no one went home disappointed.

We all know about Prince’s ongoing 21-show Los Angeles residency, which until Wednesday had been only at the aging Inglewood arena he’s played often during his career. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum: With mere hours of warning, Prince announced a pair of shows at the dinky Troubadour -- pop. 500 -- becoming the latest pop giant to play the venerable space in the past few years (James Taylor & Carole King, Tom Petty, Hall & Oates, Glen Campbell, etc.).

Prince nodded to the venue’s history by playing his cover of early Troubadour stalwart Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” from her game-changing 1971 album Blue and the 2007 set A Tribute to Joni Mitchell. There were other hat-tips to the era including a stage wall and backdrop adorned with late-psychedelic-era posters and effects and a strong take on Marvin Gaye’s 1973 classic “Let’s Get It On,” featuring a stirring vocal by L.A. local Andy Allo — whose intoxicating smile as she watched Prince applaud her was priceless.

The first of two shows Wednesday night began with and was peppered with jazz. The improvisational bent was obvious throughout the set: lots of pointing and nodding, with the four-piece band watching Prince almost constantly for the changes. There were strains of James Brown funk, ’70s pillow soul, rock, blues and, certainly, all that jazz.

The drummer and sax man sauntered onstage first. John Blackwell launched into a slamming drum solo, and scene-stealer Mike Phillips noodled with the modern equivalent of a Frampton-esque talk box. He teased some “One Nation Under a Groove” lines and some George Benson-like scatting.

Joined by bassist Ida Kristine Nielsen and keyboard player Renato Neto, they began to groove, looking offstage as they and the place waited for the star. After 10 minutes, Prince strode down the Troubadour’s stairs and took the stage. Impossibly thin and impeccably coiffed, he was careful not to make eye contact with the crowd at first. He played some decidedly hard rock guitar -- it’s easy to forget how good a player he is -- and everyone else took solos of their own. Eighteen minutes after it began, the jazz-funk number ended.

Prince put down his guitar and quickly introduced the band, ending with: “My name is Prince. We are the Power Fantastic.” He immediately went into bandleader mode, where he remained for the rest of the show, mostly eschewing the Rock Star thing. He worked his fingers busily in a fist behind his back as he delivered a spry ultra-falsetto on “Power Fantastic,” a song that showed up on the “B-Sides” part of his three-disc The Hits set in 1993. Then he and Phillips left the stage to what became a jazz trio.

The falsetto returned for “Somewhere Here on Earth,” which oozed ’70s Dramatics/Stylistics soul and morphed into early-’60s jazz-combo mode.

After a long, funky instrumental -- highlighted, like many of the night’s numbers, by Phillips’ crazy-hot sax work -- Prince told the crowd: “We’re just having fun. Hope you are, too.” They were, judging by the shift from surprisingly subdued to wildly cheering. And their appreciation didn’t seem to be just because they were seeing one of pop’s great icons in such an intimate venue but because the music was damn good.

At times Prince would shuffle off to the side of the stage and just watch and listen, gesturing like a conductor keeping time.

“No music, no light — that’s the way I see it,” Prince said after “Colonized Mind.” Then he added, “We want to mess with a new song.” Blackwell pulled out drum brushes for the torchy “When She Comes” (at least that’s how it sounded when Prince announced the title and quietly sang the lines). For the first many minutes, it was an instrumental punctuated only by the refrain, “When she comes/She never closes her eyes.” Seemingly on a whim, Prince fairly commandeered the bass as Phillips played another crowd-pleasing solo. Ceding the bass and heading back to the mike stand, he said, “I can’t even sing -- that’s too sexy.” A minute later, he added, “I see my future kids, and they all have that groove.”

After about two hours, the crowd finally got a chance to sing and bounce along with “Controversy” and “Pop Life.” But this night was a chance for Prince the star to revert to Prince the music lover. Maybe the late show would be more raucous -- it was certain to be very different -- but this one was outstanding.

Prince returns to the Forum -- with that all-inclusive $25 ticket option -- for shows May 13-14 and 27-29. More will be announced, but who knows where.

The rare club show brought out a number of celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Glee’s Darren Criss, Twilight’s Nikki Reed and American Idol’s Paul McDonald, Rumer Willis, Nicole Richie and the Zac Brown Band (which plays the Hollywood Bowl on May 14).