Prince - Electric Ballroom, London - 5/2/2014
10 Feb 2014
"Last week in London, a phenomenon occured..."
‘There are people outside… Shall we let them in?’:
Prince – Bringing music back to The People in February 2014
February in London. After a sobering January, the grind is now back in full perpetual motion, an increasingly extreme climate continuing its icy grip on the capital, whilst a whir of public tension culminates in tube strikes, rendering it a nightmare to get anywhere. Almost sensing this dip in morale, the universe has fought back, and this week in London, a phenomenon occurred.
Thrillingly, it’s not a consumer craze causing the commotion, nor a rag sale on Oxford Street, a new tablet release, or a massive tournament that results in half a side getting into fights out of utter frustration, and the other out of pure elation. Instead, it’s down to music – that oft-neutered commodity, and more specifically a pivotal man who simultaneously gallops forward while reminding us of a shimmering legacy.
After all, a truly brilliant future cannot exist without an informed past. Prince is back. But different. This time, he has a new band, 3RDEYEGIRL– and this ain’t no mere gimmick or shallow aesthetic – it’s Prince in a proper band, sharing the stage with proper players and proper personalities. Through and through, the tone and delivery are completely one: a primal Hendrix blues soup, with sprinklings of Rage Against the Machine and Joan Jett. It’s a rock band of palpable discipline, precision and gnarliness; an ensemble that bottles soul; a pop band that submits to abandon. It’s a conscious throwback that, somehow, in this age of an ever-speeding pop wheel, couldn’t have ever been produced in any other era.
Of course, however, more of note amongst the media is how Prince has returned. A capital that has always embraced his sense of pomp, enigma and occasion, where else in the world did the Purple one choose to visit to play live first following the loss of his name – that symbol which almost looks like this: O(+> - but here, whilst who can forget that lethal run of 21 sell-out O2 Arena gigs – which finally demolished memories of New Labour’s Millennium Dome – back in 2007?
This time, the premise is beautifully simple: cheap entry - £10.00 a head – and Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL turning up to criminally small venues at just a few hours’ notice.
Prince has publicly stated that he will stay in this town ‘as long as’ we will ‘have him’. Seemingly, that’ll be a while. As I write, hundreds of fans are freezing in 5 degrees Celsius as part of a queue to Shepherd’s Bush Empire on a Sunday night, announced just a couple of hours ago. In an era of so much choice, let alone ‘discovery’ and ‘shuffle’ options, such committed fan devotion is scarce these days. Then again, so few artists of such stature are willing to give back quite like this.
You see, this isn’t just about a bunch of secret gigs. This is about initiating, and commemorating, real life interaction in an increasingly disparate digital universe. Prince wants you to spend time with him – and you can. It’s certainly not a business thing either – no sponsor, no merch on sale, and all at a ticket price that usually gets you into an unknown three-act bill at the Barfly. There’s just one request he makes – no cameraphone photos, please. As he puts it, ‘we want to see your face – we can’t see it if there’s technology in front of it.’
For this is the crux of the point: Prince’s February ‘residency’ in London is about spontaneity, and removing the fourth wall in real life, not via a laptop. So submissive and numb have we become to unforgiveable, tinny mp3s on plastic speakers; so accepting are we of corporate indie crap; or festival speakers that can barely be heard in gale-force winds… Prince is reminding us why this all matters.
As we enter Camden’s endearingly scruffy Electric Ballroom on a Wednesday evening at half-seven, the night after Prince’s bizarre ‘arrival press conference’ at Lianne La Havas’ living room, followed by a ‘public soundcheck’ in the very same room as this evening - the atmosphere is giddy and desperate. Screams are shrill at the door and people run to the closest spot to the stage.
Palpably, it’s fair to say that many of these people are kids – kids that would never have had the chance to see Prince before this ridiculous opportunity; a generation that have probably never seen guitars played like this ever before. At 8.10pm, it commences: stadium strobes, flange and big muff guitar pedals, and shedloads of smoke. It opens with a pre-record of recently unveiled new single ‘Pretzelbodylogic’ from 3RDEYEGIRL’s forthcoming album ‘Plectrumelectrum’ (presumably they have a band keyboard with a missing space-bar?), which morphs into a live rendition – at which point the crowd’s levels of pandemonium are at an optimum. Befittingly, all-time classic – ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ – follows, slowed-down to a hip-hop / swamp-rock groove. And in this new version, the band has actually achieved the once-thought-impossible – they have bettered the original.
And so follows the next hour – new songs, which feature a torrent of bad-ass Zeppelin riffage and almost-ironic soloing from Prince, whose face euphorically inverts and gurns at every bending note – not to mention some mindblowing playing from drummer Hannah Ford, guitarist Donna Grantis, and bassist Ida Nielsen. Each gets their electrifying ‘solo’ moment, always more than once, and the whole thing feels like a sweaty, indulgent rock sauna. The re-workings continue, with a majestic – and, again, improved – ‘I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man’, before the glam romp of ‘Guitar’ erupts a pogo pit. By now, the hysteria is contagious, and evidently, our showman is bitten. The sound mix, meanwhile, is unbelievable; guitars above everything else, it’s violent and inexplicably sexy.
‘Do you want to hear a couple more?’ he teases to jungle roars. ‘Like you were going to say no,’ he grins.
As we hit an hour of stage time, Prince looks at the packed room and asks:
‘There are people outside… Shall we let them in?’
Ah, yes, we had forgotten about them. Of course, the nature of this last minute approach has ramifications – i.e. that not everyone can physically fit in such rooms. However, of course, he’s miles ahead of us – there’s a solution in hand. So, after spellbinding, sing-along renditions of ‘Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)’ and seldom-played b-side ‘Bambi’ (performed as a surprise, closing encore when the house lights are up, when many have already left), the venue clears and word spreads that a second show will occur for those still outside queuing.
There’s a simultaneous humility to the idea as there is a sheer enthusiasm from the performers in question; a will to spread and extend this experience as widely as possible within the parameters.
And so, another 1,000 rush in, pretty much satiating the entire demand for all those that chanced their Wednesday evenings, willing to wait for hours in the cold for what might well be the performance of their lives. Sure enough, if the 8.10pm-9.15pm performance was something else, then the 11pm show was everything.
Largely mirroring the performance earlier, our late-night set has the added benefit of (temporarily-adorned) sunglasses, a longer duration, and even more surprises. There’s also an emotional weight that provides greater resonance; whereas Show One was about energy, sweat and jamming hypnosis, Show Two is, well, still all about these, as well as tugging at something greater beneath.
‘Y’all doing all right? Me, I’m not so good… The jetlag has kicked in…’ Sympathetic roars flood forth and ‘Crimson & Clover’ provides our first truly moving moment – audience singing alongside our master in unison, and to tearful effect. A frivolous counterpoint in the form of a slap-bass infused cover of ‘Play That Funky Music’ lightens things temporarily before a couple of verses and choruses of ‘Purple Rain’ brings the house down, Prince retreating to side of stage piano.
By this point, we are in no doubt of the legend that will surround this evening, this week, this entire period in a rain-drenched London where everything seemed cold and testing. Of course, so when Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL return for a marathon of medley mega-hits comprising ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Sign “☮" the Times’, ‘Hot Thing’, ‘Nasty Girl’, ‘Alphabet Street’, ‘Housequake’, ‘I Would Die 4 U’, ‘Pop Life’, and ‘A Life Bizarre’, it’s possibly the greatest moment in our lives. He boasts of having ‘so many hits’; the only echo of such cheeky banter from the classic O2 gigs. And in a literal puff of smoke, he’s gone.
The whole thing is overwhelming, and a benchmark. More importantly, however, it’s restorative: a unifying, unpretentious treat of live performance, vivid artistry and a canon of work so transcendent and entertaining, it feels only slightly depressing to consider modern equivalents today. At 55, Prince and his band are sharper-edged, tighter and more exciting than many bands hitting their stride at third album stage. Time to up the game.
In any event, what tonight, and indeed this entire phase, will prove, is that it’s not in ivory towers or social media that happiness or inner peace resides – it’s in the company of real people. And, ideally, truly great people such as these.