photo by Jason Williamson
During a conversation about a hundred (ok, 5-10) years ago on BowieNet a friend of mine opined on Prince, exclaiming that he was like a walking Black History Month. He absorbed the best bits of those he had loved, watched and learned from. But while his influences were worn openly, he was completely himself. For the guitar, and the hotness which shouldn’t work but somehow does, he took plenty of Hendrix (though a much more conservative version). For the weirdness and sense of innovation he took some George Clinton. For the dictatorial bandleader, to channel the funk that poured out of him, he took so much from Sly Stone. For the overall king of everything, master of all, he stole liberally from James Brown. For the fuck you attitude it was all Miles Davis. And only recently, I realised, for the slices of sweeter soul he nicked a ton from Shuggie Otis. This is Prince. The parts that make him who he is. The people through which he is filtered. Everyone in music has this, the family tree that created them. But few are as blatant as Prince, and few have been so transparent, until I saw Janelle Monáe perform.
This is no bad thing, and I don’t wish to make it appear so. She does have a bit of an authenticity problem, because stealing without filtering and reimagining is just you doing an impersonation of someone else and I don’t think she needs to do that. This was never demonstrated better than during the two ‘tribute’ sections in the show. The second, during the encore, was a little much, a fairly karaoke-ish version of Let’s Go Crazy. It was perhaps only present as a nod because Prince appears briefly on Givin Em What They Love, from her most recent album, last year’s The Electric Lady, hands down my favourite pop record of 2013 (imagine a lost album located between Off The Wall and Lovesexy, you’re nearly there; in a pop-world of single digital downloads, she made a real no-filler long player). It was fine; it wasn’t bad, but the show just didn’t need it. She had half a dozen of her own songs she hadn’t played yet – like the remarkable Victory, which sadly wasn’t played at all. There’s really no need to do covers when you have the songs, though I understood why she felt the need to pay tribute.
Some time before that, and this one hit the sweet spot with me because he was my first childhood music love, she did a perfectly weighted Jackson Five homage (I Want You Back /ABC). If you shut your eyes, it was like listening to a note-perfect teenage Michael Jackson. No kidding, she nailed the shit out of a pair of songs she has obviously been singing all her life. So when I say that Prince synthesises all of his musical loves yet manages to create something wholly original, I don’t think Janelle Monáe is quite there yet. But, and this is the crucial part, because her songwriting is so fantastic and her songs are so incredibly perfect, none of her reliance on being derivative matters.
My best friend and gig-going companion suggested that her robotic persona is misdirection, as since the start she has adopted, Bowie-like, the persona of a character called Cindi Mayweather. Incidentally, she says that she hasn’t yet talked to Bowie but that he’s in her subconscious and they speak ‘on the same frequencies', which is a little bit nutty, a good sign (she also says there’s a time travel machine in Atlanta that both she and OutKast have been through, and I feel like I could believe her). We mused on whether she does the whole I’m-an-android thing because she’s a bit, how to put it, stiff? She can be a little halting in her performance, without the emotional warmth of other R&B divas, but that this is covered by the sheer amount of hard work she gets through onstage, dancing both brilliantly and a bit awkwardly without pause. I was exhausted just watching her. Or does she do it because she wants to put up a big wall and not convey any of the over-personal I’m-really-your-mate nonsense of the Rihannas and the Mileys? I actually love that about her, how little I know about her personally, in this age of over-sharing. I don’t know what she wears when she’s offstage. I don’t know where she lives or what her house looks like. I don’t know whether she drinks or smokes or takes drugs. I don’t know who she sleeps with or who she hangs out with. I know nothing about her at all, except that, somehow fittingly, as she does have a kind of Dorothy innocence, that she’s from Kansas, aka the Land of Oz (incidentally, someone should remake The Wiz: she could play all of the parts). She talks about being an android, though certainly, Data-like, she seems to be trying to be more human. It’s a clever and unique approach.
So for example, the android Janelle has spent years watching Michael Jackson on repeat and has synthesised and then replicated his moves, and the showman inside lets it out; to the delight of the audience she moonwalks several times. Not just Michael either, there was more than a little of Rhythm Nation Janet present in the room as well. How many members of the audience get all of these references? It doesn’t matter. Maybe the kids swooning over her will look something up on You Tube when they get home, find some old clips and see from whence it all came. I must admit, I couldn’t help but smile at the overwhelming amount of James Brown-isms on show: the boxing-style warm-up man, the announcer, reminiscent of Danny Ray, who stirred JB crowds into a frenzy for over 30 years. Then we had the foot-to-foot shuffle and the mic stand being flipped back and forth, which are now third generation moves. I am always reminded of that precocious MJ clip, recorded in July 1968 (a month before his 10th birthday, he’d already been performing on stage for 4 years), covering JB’s I Got The Feelin, for their Motown audition tape. And now she steals from MJ, who stole from JB, so she’s lauding both and those same moves are passed down across 50 years. And finally there was the announcer coming on to put a velvet robe around her shoulders, which she would then throw off, another JB steal. It was utterly shameless and I loved every second of it.
I have rarely heard such perfectly appointed pop music, conveyed so meticulously, both calculated and heartfelt. And she doesn’t have to do what all of the other female artists seem to think they need to do, or are told to do by fat white guys at their record labels. It’s a little sad that this must be stated as news but she doesn’t use sex to sell her music. Shocking! She has a simple but slick visual theme that doesn’t exploit anyone and she sticks to it to the last: enveloped in a big white backdrop, alongside her tight 7-piece band, who are dressed in black and white and play black or white instruments, and her two black and white stripe-clad backing singers, she wears a uniform of black and white – tight white trousers, white shirt, bolero jacket, black braces and with her hair in a high pompadour (this time, a steal from both JB and Little Richard). There’s no short skirts or cleavage or sliding down a pole happening. There are a few instances of crotch thrusting but it comes off in a non-sexual way, somehow (to be fair, it wasn’t exactly arousing when MJ did it either). She’s not Beyoncé, who with the raising of one eyebrow and the slight movement of one thigh can exude sex all day long, but she does have a Beyoncé-like control over her creative output (without, one hopes, the slightly creepy temperature-controlled digital storage facility recording her every move). She seems to be in complete control, without having to expose her flesh, and has surrounded herself with an intelligent, creative team – from her excellent band to OutKast’s Big Boi as producer to collaborators such as Erykah Badu, Solange and Esperanza Spalding, who are, in no coincidence, also powerful women in control of their careers.
But the songs, it’s all about those songs: Dance Apocalyptic, Q.U.E.E.N., Electric Lady, Come Alive and the big hit from the first record, Tightrope. In truth, the encore of Many Moons dragged a little, turning into a 10-minute band introduction song that descended into her lying on stage before being ‘revived’, Frankenstein-style, by bolts of lightning. It probably looked great from the front row, not least when she finished the show with a spot of crowd surfing, but at the back it caused people to start checking their phones. That minor quibble aside, from the second the gig started with her being carried on stage in a straitjacket, after no less than three men in white delivered and polished her black and white striped microphone stand, this was a devastating, energetic, brilliant pitch-perfect performance of flawless pop music in front of a baying, buzzing crowd. It was a thrill to be there.
I've seen my share of gigs over the years but last night was on some other musical level, one I've never been to before. I saw Prince in 1990 and I remember little of it, just craning my neck to try and see a blur of movement as I watched the greatest artist of the 80s at what I thought was the height of his powers. And yet here I am 17 years later and last night Prince, 49 years young, surpassed his 32-year-old self in every way.
The imposing O2 building, formerly the £750m Millennium Dome, towered over me as I approached Greenwich. Inside, the outer circle was buzzing with shops, bars, restaurants and inside that circle was the venue itself. Surprisingly compact due to an insanely steep trajectory my heart sank as I realised this glorified sports hall was full of your average beer swilling working class pretending to be middle class Brits. As with any performer, the ability to feed off a good audience is crucial so I was a little worried. The comfy seats and their attached cup holders made me feel like I was in a cinema or about to watch a basketball game. Usually I'm at the front at gigs, standing as near as I can get to the stage. It's been a long while since I was at a seated venue and there was an air of corporate entertainment to it all. I felt the tension of the audience as a good-natured Mexican wave started and the clock ticked on.
At just before 9pm the lights went off and the crowd roared. The stage, the famous symbol, was in the round so all views were good. On the screens by the speakers, at ceiling level, a clip of the man started playing. It was confusing for a second - after all, who starts their show with a tape of themselves? (Well, ok, James Brown's pre-show tape was his own greatest hits when I saw him a few years ago). The crowd was up on their feet, which was a relief. Sitting down to watch him would have been unbearable. The roar was deafening as the centre of the stage, clouded in smoke, sank and then rose with Prince, dressed in black, carrying his usual Telecaster, stood immovably. Quick as a flash he played a familiar opening chord and it was Little Red Corvette. I can't think of another artist who would display quite such an amount of charming arrogance by beginning a gig by throwing away four of his most famous songs as a 4 minute medley but that's exactly what he did - Corvette, Raspberry Beret, I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man and Alphabet Street (which included the lyric ad lib, "I'm gonna put her in the back seat and drive her.....to Manchester!" Where did he think he was?! After that he shouted 'Funky London!' at every opportunity). It was an almost old fashioned singalong, just him and the crowd and a guitar. I've rarely seen a gig where the star didn't hammer a hard first song to get the crowd going. But Prince doesn't do things that way.
Out of the stage centre, his band appeared, dressed immaculately in white. The twins, his dancers, gyrated their way onto the front of the symbol. Reviews had said these ladies primary act was to dance around Prince but mostly they didn't - they were just some eye candy working the stage while he was at another end. In fact, the man didn't stop moving all night. I'm going to quote my friend Rex here because I thought of this during the show and he could not be more right. "EVERY time I've seen Prince perform - which has been every opportunity I've gotten for the past 25 years - I'm reminded of the history of popular black music, whether it be a Hendrix or Hazel inspired guitar lick, a Wilson or Brown lifted dance step, or a Mayfield or Redding influenced vocal riff! Prince is a walking, breathing, year-long Black History Month!”
The sound was as good as could be expected, a little muffled and not quite loud enough, in a hangar of a venue like this but it didn't seem to matter. It was a blur of great songs, starting with Cream and continuing with an unbelievable lengthy jam of Musicology. At one point he got half a dozen fans to dance on stage for a few songs, which was distracting but he seemed to enjoy it. You could see that he enjoyed the whole night, constantly dancing and grinning. The premier fan site, Prince.org, reports this morning that the show, while the shortest so far in London at 2 hours, was the best of the ones he's done so far, with the best setlist. I admit, even I was shocked by the quality of the song choices. Some of the songs were truncated, some were played in full, but all were played with power, passion and precision. From the minute he crawled on his hands across to the back of the stage to, my highlight of the night, Controversy, it was a masterclass in stage performance. James Brown may be lost to us now but his essence lives on. I couldn't help thinking that watching this was what it must have been like seeing JB in the 60s or early 70s.
A 45-minute relentless blast of funk before he vanished, leaving everyone breathless. Who else could employ what amounted to mini-intervals mid show and get away with it? It was as if an imaginary rope was attached to each person and he was pulling us up and down, bending everyone at will. It was an honour to see Maceo Parker, James Brown's saxophonist, namechecked throughout the night, play in this interval, an exquisite lengthy version of Wonderful World. Then, with little fanfare, he appeared back on the left circular part of the symbol at the piano, apparently the first time this had been done at the O2. People were sitting, to catch their breath, and were treated to a 25-minute solo piano medley. It felt intimate, somehow. The audience, who usually would have been chatting or taking a booze break, were enraptured. It was an unforgettable show-stealing interlude that even now sends a shiver down my spine just to think about it.
Back came the band with a super hot version of If I Was Your Girlfriend followed by the immaculate Black Sweat and then a surprise choice, Kiss. I heard a woman nearby say 'This is music you listen to after you've had sex'. These three songs were like some horny interlude. Prince shouldn't be hot but he is and everyone knew it. I took a little video on my phone of Purple Rain, which always, charmingly, goes on for a couple of minutes longer than it should. Then he was gone again, down the stage trapdoor. All that was missing was a stage MC with a silk coat over his back, as he kneeled and disappeared. The second encore was a blaze of new and old - Let's Go Crazy and Guitar. Another disappearing act as the roadies hurriedly placed bongos and double snares on the stage for the final song appearance of funk/Latin collective Grupo Fantasma, his support act, which swelled the stage numbers to 13 musicians, 2 dancers and Prince. The 2-hour show felt short, almost. Later he went on to play another 2 hours of covers and jams at the aftershow gig at IndigO2, a small club inside the venue, with Grupo Fantasma, sometimes singing, sometimes just acting as a backing musician.
Such energy in a 30 year old would be impressive but for a man of nearly 50, who played keyboards, piano, guitar and even one song on bass (Give It To Me Baby by Rick James, which he stopped, smiled and said 'you guys don't know that one! I'm old school, I don't like nothin' new!' and then went into Play That Funky Music), it was breathtaking. If you're in any doubt as to whether to try and get a ticket, do it. The question for me now is how long I can resist buying a ticket for any of the remaining 15 London shows because chances like these don't come along often.
(just with guitar)
Little Red Corvette
I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
Sometimes It Snows In April
(band join the stage)
U Got The Look
Pass the Peas
Give it 2 Me
Play that Funky Music
I Feel For You
Wonderful world (Maceo solo)
(just with piano)
Somewhere Here On Earth
Diamonds & Pearls
How Come You Don't Call
Condition Of The Heart
Do Me Baby
I Wanna Be Your Lover (with band)
(off piano, back on centre stage)
If I Was Your Girlfriend
Let's Go Crazy
Take Me With You
Get On The Boat