Prince – Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 9th February 2014
When Prince first landed on this planet, the press didn’t know what to make of him. In an era of big hair, big riffs and zero subtlety, he was bafflingly labelled the “new Hendrix”, which when declared in the same year as the Purple Rain soundtrack was released, seemed confusing and misleading. However, almost 30 years later Prince stands in front of an incredibly lucky Shepherds Bush audience, and with that afro and those solos the comparison holds a lot truer than it did when first made.
These London shows have been a master-class in PR from a man whose creative peak sits over a decade ago yet still stirs the sort of rabid hype that any of his era contemporaries could only dream of. The facts have been few and far between, but after the two Electric Ballroom shows, some had travelled to London from all over the country on the off chance of catching the petite purple popstar busking on Eros’s steps or dropping by for a late night Ronnie Scott’s set. It was at lunchtime on February 9th that the first official show was announced via Cerys Matthews’s show on BBC 6Music that was to take place at Shepherds Bush Empire that very same evening. The internet resembled a voluptuous violet vulva as fans rushed to queue for the show up to 6 hours in advance of doors opening.
As the day progressed, the news spread and with it rumours emerged including one of a £70 price tag per ticket posted by the venue itself which contradicted Prince’s philanthropic pricing he declared in his press conference. As this hypocritical news outraged many, the queue growth began to decelerate as many evidently decided the opportunity was too much for too little. It wasn’t until the doors opened that it was revealed that the previous price tag of £10 per ticket remained true for the night, likely a cunning rouse to draw out only the most devoted fans to this intimate performance and to avoid dangerous crowd levels. I didn’t even join the queue until 19:40 yet still managed to get a front row view from the upper balcony with my attendee number 1316 scrawled across my hand in black ink. Incredibly the show didn’t even sell out.
As we got to our seats, Prince was already blazing his way through Let’s Go Crazy, an unexpected delight considering the uncertainty of whether any older material would fit into this evening’s set list. Prince’s guitar and vocals sat loud and proud in a mix that made clear to the three other members of his current outfit who the star was here. His voice sounded as clear and powerful as the the days of the Purple Rain soundtrack, the realisation that this was all really happening finally kicked in.
The set was an awe-inspiring journey through tracks old and new reminding you just how many incredible songs Prince has released in his career. Prince stomped his flashing high heeled shoes on the distortion pedal with the elegance of a ballerina. No amount of dry ice, lasers or strobe lights could distract this incredibly tight outfit from the task at hand. The stage is a monument to excess amongst the gold medallions, dry ice cannons and guitar windmilling. Prince has never been one to follow trends, always striving to set his own, a leader not a follower. It’s easy to forget which decade you’re in as you watch the guitar acrobatics on stage that revels in its pomp and ceremony.
After the first of six (six!) encore breaks, Prince takes to the piano in darkness to perform a medley of some of his most recognisable hits much to the screaming delight of the audience. As he works his way through an exquisite medley of The Beautiful Ones, Diamonds and Pearls and Purple Rain he only needs sing half the words allowing the crowd to fill in the gaps as required. Shortly after he reconfigures his keyboard as a sampler triggering a medley that showcases some of his late eighties electronic highlights. As he gets more into it, he hands control over to an anonymous minion suddenly he deciding that it’s time for a Prince bass solo. With the pounding rhythms against a slap / distorted bass progression (still in the darkness) it’s another reminder of the versatility Prince has, moving from song to song as and when he feels like trying something new.
In the two and a half hour set, Prince manages to fit in 39 songs jamming some like I Like It There out longer than their recorded equivalents while some like When Doves Cry only last a verse and a chorus as part of a medley. The band watch Prince intently as he dictates song lengths and direction through sudden hand gestures and nods. Some songs stop mid-bar, some incorporate the crowd into the percussion, leaving you feeling like a voyeur into a band jamming through songs they love with no discernible set-list or direction other than the whim of Prince. It’s this feeling of spontaneity that makes the six encores feel even more special, the incessant chanting, screaming and hooping of the crowd begging for more each time the band leave the stage. Even after the final bows following the fifth, Bambi comes out for another encore to an appreciative crowd. This was a man evidently enjoying himself.
“You guys expect a lot for your money” quipped Prince amongst many references to his discount ticket price for these shows. Even a forty five minute set of nothing but Prince’s new album would have satisfied me under the circumstances, but to have witnessed this melee of one of the greatest pop stars of all time feels like I was part of something special. Those currently living in London are lucky to have won the affection of Prince as he works his way through the venues. The information may be slight and the risk of disappointment great, but on his current form I cannot recommend taking the risk and seeing him before it’s too late. Don’t risk the regret, leave your cynicism at home, get involved.
God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.