Friday, July 26, 2019

"2 Whom it May Concern ... " - Prince's Act I and Act II Tours

"My name is not Prince. My name damn sure ain't Victor."

What happens when a major recording artist changes his name in the midst of a world tour? If it's Prince, that means the audiences will get one type of show before the transformation, and a different one afterward.

Three months before he became the symbol--specifically Love Symbol #2--on June 7, 1993, he embarked on his first tour of the U.S. in approximately five years. I recently watched video of one of the shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Inspiration and fun are the first two words that came to mind when I think about that concert. Prince was clearly smitten by dancer and future wife, Mayte Garcia, and I enjoyed their chemistry as they performed songs of that era, many of which were written with her in mind. One of my favorite moments occurs during "The Max," when they do a sensual dance together and flirt at the piano.

Garcia stood out during the previous Diamonds and Pearls tour and she made an impact here, especially with her ballet during "And God Created Woman" and belly dancing during "7." Throughout the concert, she played off the energy of additional dancers TDK: Tony M. (also a rapper), Damon Dickson and Kirk Johnson.

I've never been a huge fan of the trio, but I can't knock their stamina. And I was delighted by a little step they did, turning their backsides to the audience, during "The Continental." Later, when two of them hoisted Prince high in the air, I nearly broke out in hives. There's no way I'd risk dropping such precious cargo!

There were also a few other women dancers. Kelly Konno, whom I instantly recognized from touring with Janet Jackson portrayed a reporter whose clothes are ... sigh ... stripped off onstage. (You can read more about her experience here.)

In addition to love, Prince was inspired by Egypt, loosely telling the story of an Egyptian Princess (Garcia) being hunted by men who want to steal her "3 Chains O' Gold." More of the plot would become clearer--though not necessarily more interesting--when the 3 Chains O' Gold short film was released the following year.

But the theatrics would be nothing without the music of Prince and the NPG, which at the time consisted of Michael Bland, Tommy Barbarella, Morris Hayes, and a fantastic horn section, which would become known as the Hornheads. Prince showed off his piano- and guitar-playing talents throughout the show.

"You were proud that you were there with him so you wanted to be your best, but the ultimate motivator was fear," Barbarella said in an interview with Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. "So many amazing moments were tempered with fear."

One of the craziest stories I've heard was when Prince held his gun-shaped mic up to trombonist Michael B. Nelson's head night after night to make sure he didn't miss a high note again during his solo.

"He just wanted it to be perfect all the time," Nelson told Rolling Stone. "And he wasn’t always cheerful about how he wanted that. It took me a long time to come to terms with that."

After the first half of the show closed with "7," I dreaded the greatest hits-heavy second half. However, Prince managed to keep it lively and diverse, throwing in B-sides like "Irresistible Bitch" and "She's Always in My Hair," alongside tracks from Gold Nigga, the NPG album Warner Bros. refused to release.

I paid close attention to "Purple Rain," which is always an important indicator of Prince's spiritual mindset. Known for changing the "let me guide you" lyric to emphasize God or Jesus at times, Prince decided to emphasize the word "love," which I argue is a code for Prince's higher power (more on that in my book).

Many of the reviews were harsh, with publications criticizing the plot, Prince's "machismo," his one-dimensional portrayal of Garcia and the sexual content in his new music.

"The attempts he made at social relevance in the mid-1980s have vanished; now, it's back to the bedroom," Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times.

I don't want to see the reviews for the European leg of the tour, or Act II, which began in late July.

There was a shadow cast over the production before it even began. In April, Prince announced he was retiring from music, and would fulfill his much-publicized--and likely exaggerated--$100 million contract with Warner Bros. only with shelved material from his vault. And though his name change was a complex personal decision, it was clear he also had motivations to undermine the record label in the meantime.

That's a lot of baggage to carry during a tour, and it showed, at least in the London show I watched.

Prince excised his new material and the Egyptian plot almost entirely from the show. What remained was an uninspired parade of his old hits, some of which he said he would stop performing after this series of concerts. Prince himself appeared bored, doing snippets of songs and noodling at the piano or spending a brief moment behind the drum kit in an effort to fill time. (As the tour went on, he'd gradually add in tracks from forthcoming albums.)

He dissolved TDK, who were sorely needed in this lackluster production. Instead, Garcia was brought out to dance more, but much of the chemistry was gone without the backdrop of songs she inspired.

"My Name is Prince" was left in as the opening number, but Prince did not appear onstage. Mayte Garcia dressed as him and fooled the audience until she stripped down. That little trick was actually kinda cool, and reminiscent of his 1980s antics, like tricking consumers by putting Cat Glover on the cover of the "Sign 'O' the Times" single and masking her face.

Thank goodness the NPG still sounded tight, especially those horns during "America" and "D.M.S.R." That might be the only other thing I liked about this tour.

With Prince increasingly becoming anti-corporate, it was a little funny to see Prince's symbol advertised next to Coca-Cola, the sponsor of the tour. Another goofy moment occurred when he  grumbled about the prevalence of lip syncing in the industry, then proceeded to lip sync--very poorly--during "The Sacrifice O' Victor." (Thanks for "sacrificing" one of my favorite songs, P.)

He had to preface that song by telling the audience his name is not Victor, which was a rumor floating around after his name change.

"What, you got a problem 'cause you don't know what to call me?" he asked from the stage. "If you're always with me, you never have to call me."


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