The Shaman of Self-Karaoke

Prince @ Coliseu, Lisbon, 17 August 2013.

Prince was in great shape last night in Lisbon. Out of the 11 times I’ve seen him, this was possibly among my top 3 – which is saying something, considering I twice saw him from among an audience of 300, considering I saw him do a secret jazz-infested gig in London at 3AM, considering my expectations had lately been running fairly low (his studio production has succumbed to an incomprehensible blandness), and considering the fact that most think of him as a has-been (and indeed he’s getting on a bit – he’s 55, a dinosaur in the speed of pop novelty). No more doubts: this two and a half-hour concert with four encores and both seemingly tireless musicians and audience restored faith in a musical creature I’d gradually drifted away from.

Prince seems to have perfected his showmanship skills to the extreme, while wisely learning to overcome the dead end of his prior superstar status, one that would lead him to become a cabaret act of his own former glories. It has happened to so many of his generation, and every time it is painful to watch an aging human being mocking their 15 seconds of fame from decades earlier ad nauseam, in order to make a buck.

No such fate for Prince, then: in 2013, he hires 3 young female musicians full of poise, and rocks harder than ever. He invokes the ghost of Hendrix and the legacy of the legendary P-Funk all-night workouts, while exorcising both of the chemical haze. It’s 2013, and even the drug of choice, the digital camera, is ferociously hunted down throuhgout the gig by deeply unpleasant punters flashing obsessively into your eyes at the minimum sign of suspicion (this was the only major drawback of the evening: at times these guys were downright rude with the audience, only to give up and vanish as the encores multiplied – free video recording for all y’all).

Prince’s guitar playing is phenomenal as ever: he never seems to get enough credit for the incredible guitarist he is, the persona and mystique hold the outstanding musicianship ransom in perpetuity. I was never a big fan of screeching guitar solos, but watching him actually do it live is something else: he is one of the very few musicians I’m aware of who seems to merge with the guitar, rather than “attack” it.

Of course for all his innovative genius and skills, coupled with decades of musical exploration, one might expect a wider aesthetic palette. This may be a shortcoming of his: yes, he merges pop, rock, funk, jazz and blues, but these days seems to stay well away from any ambition to open up any truly surprising music territories. In truth, Prince’s musical palette is surprisingly narrow considering his obvious gifts. A lot of his aesthetic adventure in the early days had a lot to do with direct input with his close collaborators, regardless of what the mythology of the single genius dictates; and as he gradually isolated himself in an ivory tower of singularity, his musical languages stabilised.

What is it, then, that prevents it all from becoming pure pastiche? In the end, original contexts and essential ingredients are gone, never to return. The momentum is certainly no longer there. Yet yesterday I looked around and saw people genuinely moved by the experience: and it was -not- just nostalgia. It was ontological, visceral, intuitive. The anthemic Purple Rain seemed rooted in some collective consciousness, regardless of whether or not it brought back memories.

Suddenly there are audience members dancing on stage, and Prince is triggering back tracks, turning his own hit parade into a karaoke jukebox starring himself. All of a sudden, a Prince disco amongst the guitar-fueled mayhem!… Why is it that this does not feel wrong, or at least awkward? Precisely because it’s incoherent: it’s Prince’s way of reassuring he does whatever he pleases. Rule number one of a Prince concert – the priority is his own fun, and then his fun becomes contagious. Yes, he’s got amazing skills on display, but refuses to be a hostage to those very skills. Perversely, the karaoke segment might well have been the most radical statement of the night.

Truth be told, there was the occasional dud. The rendition of the superior, redemptive anthem “The Love We Make” didn’t quite gel with Donna’s guitar; and the NPG ballad “The One” turned out to be little more than an insipid exercise in audience interaction.

But the songs were actually not that important in the end. I must say I listened to quite a few recordings of recent concerts and yes, the sets do sound fairly predictable when taken out of the whole, contextual experience. Yet Prince’s onstage magic goes beyond the “numbers” – he is a master of collective catharsis. It’s a chaotic narrative clashing rock freakouts with gospel spirituality and intense physicality. It’s the sense of belonging, the charisma, the nods to the past mixed with a vertigo of not knowing what to expect next – even if playing the same songs, Prince finds endless ways of making them all fit into a unique and unrepeatable whole. Example at hand: yesterday, apparently on the spot, he decided to play the same short music segment about six times in a row, with increasing speed, while the audience tried their best to dance fast enough to keep up.

No wonder Prince and George Clinton are (were?) once mates: they are a rare breed of modern shamans, now nearing extinction by a malaise of Biebers on autotune.

prince_ar

[Photo by Adriano Rangel]

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