RALEIGH -- Seven years ago, Prince brought a tour to Raleigh that aimed to demonstrate who was the boss (him, of course). Wednesday night brought him back to the RBC Center, and the underlying context this time seemed to be a demonstration of just how many employees, underlings and spinoff divisions he's had.
Prince really was kind of the Motown of the 1980s, with an instantly recognizable sound. Whether it was his name or somebody else's on the Paisley Park Records label, you always knew it was him right away.
That point was made before Wednesday night's performance even began, as the video screens showed a series of videos by '80s-vintage Prince associates including The Family, Sheila E., Andre Cymone, The Time and Mavis Staples. Then after Prince introduced her as "my inspiration, the voice of seven generations, the bridge, my sister," opening act Chaka Khan came out and began with the hit he wrote for her, 1984's "I Feel For You."
As for Prince's two-hour headlining set, it was so tightly scripted he needed teleprompters to keep track. It was intermittently amazing, too, although the opening stretch was a touch too manic. "Y'all know how many hits I got?" he asked. "Wanna hear 'em tonight?"
Yes, but not crammed into a single half-hour. After beginning with "When Doves Cry," he launched into an ADHD-friendly medley featuring regrettably abbreviated snippets of "Sign o the Times," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "Hot Thing," "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "Scandalous" and I can't even recall what else.
If the format left something to be desired, Prince and his crack band showed impeccable virtuosity and showmanship. He himself did very little playing during the opening stretch, because he was too busy conducting, directing, shimmying, strutting, preening and stalking the crowd like a gigolo on the make. He put in some impressive footwork as he sang, especially considering that he was wearing red high heels.
Things were just picking up with "Raspberry Beret" and "You Got the Look" when Prince vacated the stage to do an outfit change. And that was when his backup singers sang Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," which was no less dreary as a gospel number than it is as soundtrack for those animal-cruelty commercials. It felt interminable.
Fortunately, Prince returned bearing a guitar. He brought Chaka Khan back onstage for a cameo performance of "Sweet Thing," in which she got a much kinder mix than during her own set (she'd been barely audible over the muddy, indistinct roar of her backup band). The following "Controversy" got everybody hopping up and down, and Prince played some of his best guitar of the night.
A cover of Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music" made the perfect excuse to invite a few dozen folks from the audience onstage to dance. After that, it was one bullseye after another: "Let's Go Crazy," "Delirious," "1999," "Little Red Corvette" and an epic 10-minute version of "Purple Rain." The encore version of "Kiss" (with the "Dynasty" lyrical reference changed to "Real Housewives") made for a nice victory lap.
He's still the boss, for sure.
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ADDENDUM (4/7/11): What's in Prince's refrigerator?