Prince, the Ultimate Guitar Hero, Indulges his Rock Side: Concert Review

prince rehearsal 2013 L
With all-female band 3rd Eye Girl backing him, the Purple One proves -- yet again -- why he might be music's most dynamic live entertainer.

Prince’s history is inextricably linked to the Rolling Stones’ own, thanks to the legendary 1981 shows where the fledgling artist was booed off the L.A. Coliseum stage by Stones fans. Over the past week, Prince and the Stones returned to L.A. with premium-priced tours, but their wholly different philosophies about what it means to give devotees their hundreds of dollars’ worth is an instructive sign of both artists’ times.

The Stones seemed to assume that folks willing to pay up to $600 a ticket must be well-heeled, casual fans whose dates would grumble if the band left a single up-tempo classic-rock staple out of their set. Prince made the opposite presumption, taking it on faith that anyone willing to meet his $200 asking price must be a hardcore fan who’d be ticked not to hear new material and obscurities alongside severely rearranged perennials. Both acts proved again why they’re among the dozen most exciting live acts in music history, but only one has any investment in being celebrated for his creative present as well as past.

In 2013, Prince still has the ability to pull surprises on us, and this one’s a doozy: He’s undertaking the first tour of his career that’s truly devoted to rock & roll with a pair of capital R’s. What’s been fascinating and occasionally confounding over the past three decades is how natural and brilliant Prince is as a pure rocker -- especially when it comes to peeling off convincingly Hendrixian solos -- but how that mode has always been a mere trifle to him, one of many in a bag of stylistic tricks that always veered back toward R&B. In 2007, in the single “Guitar,” he bragged, “I love you baby, but not like I love my guitar”… but fans were still left waiting for him to put his money and six-string where his mouth was. Now he’s finally done it, presenting himself as not just a rock moonlighter but full-on Guitar Hero. And it’s as glorious a wall of sound to behold as we always figured it would be.

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In short: He’s set aside the sound of records like “Cream” to sound like… Cream.

Prince isn’t even the only featured guitar virtuoso in his new band. His current support crew, 3rd Eye Girl, consists of three women he found on the web or through recommendations and started playing with in January. The quartet’s bare-bones approach is the very opposite of the soul-based, big-band style favored by Prince on other recent tours, but there’s hardly anything minimalist about their turned-up-to-12 racket. And while Prince has had strong female guitarists in his crew before -- perhaps you remember Wendy -- he’s never had an accompanist of either gender before that he let solo as much as this band’s Donna Grantis, who takes almost as many leads as he does and officially qualifies as a shredder.

The other players are drummer Hannah Ford and bassist Ida Neilsen, who got one fuzztone solo in early on that took place high enough on the fretboard that you could have mistaken her for a third guitar player. Prince seems devoted to creating websites and iconography for 3rd Eye Girl, so you can only hope he plans to keep this outfit together for quite a while, notwithstanding our habitual need to hear him stop and start a James Brown-style horn section again someday. The J.B. side of him can wait, now that’s locked into an earsplitting style that would have fit well amid the heavier side of Monterey Pop.

No two sets on his current tour have been remotely the same, though he’s shuffling a lot of the same material. At the May 7 late show, he picked an interesting structure for the set that broke things up by genre. First, he did a solid hour of nothing but his loudest rock material, including a few new songs destined for a projected summer album. Then the first encore consisted of what fans call his “sampler set” -- a 20-minutes-or-so dance-party medley that had Prince basically acting as his own DJ, putting on snippets of the rhythm parts of his biggest hits while his band played along and a couple of dozen partyers danced on stage. For the second and final encore, he retreated to a lower-key R&B mode and brought out his die-for falsetto for a trio of more sensitive ballads, including “Nothing Compares 2 U.” By the end of the 100-minute show, even fans who might have been a little taken aback by the hardcore rock emphasis felt fully serviced.

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But it was that first hour of pure rock that was the night’s real revelation. He’s done the very rare all-rock show before, including a short set of heavy stuff for a couple of hundred folks at L.A.’s Conga Room in the mid-2000s. But Prince has certainly never allowed himself to be consumed by the genre the way he is on this tour.

That led to some transformations of his better-known material. “Let’s Go Crazy,” which he’s been opening nearly every show with, was no longer a synthy, spasmatic ‘80s romp, but a medium-tempo blues jam. Ditto for the initially almost unrecognizable “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” which was actually pitched at a different key up to the last part of the chorus. The minor chords took a little less delight in giving that pregnant girl the brush-off, but it still felt weirdly celebratory, leading into the faster and more unabashedly cocky “Guitar.” A pick from early in his career, “Bambi,” fit in just fine with this Monsters of Rock set, going over a lot better now than it did at the Coliseum in ’81. Maybe the parade of Bond-credit-sequence-style female silhouettes on the rear LED screen helped.

“California, where you from?” he asked at the outset. “I’m from funky rock 'n' roll.” We’re not sure if that’s a place that has an actual passport stamp, but the Grove crowd was certainly glad for the export. Will the excitement translate to the album he’s expected to put out in June or July? Prince has thrilled us on tour before -- his in-the-moment-favoring DNA won’t allow him to do anything but -- only to put out albums as insular and wan as Lotusflow3r. But if the women of 3rd Eye Girl are playing on the new stuff, there’s not much danger of it seeming hermetically sealed; these gals can definitely take the place of his men, for the foreseeable future.

Set List:

Let's Go Crazy
She's Always in My Hair
Liathach (instrumental)
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man
Plectrum Electrum (instrumental)
Sometimes It Snows in April
Cause & Effect

Encore 1:

Medley: The Max/When Doves Cry/Sign O The Times/Forever in My Life/A Love Bizarre/Pop Life/I Would Die 4 U/Housequake

Encore 2:

How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore
Nothing Compares 2 U
Purple Rain

Twitter: @chriswillman