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The phrase “new power soul” still resonates through Prince’s later music as it did through Lovesexy a decade ago, but the conceptual brilliance that gave birth to his baroque ideology is far behind him. The most significant change, of course, is that Prince is now the Artist, which is ironic considering that he hasn’t recorded anything worthy of his pretentious new name. The lavishness of his ’80s concerts has almost scaled down to a self-parodying chitlin-circuit act.
But despite all that, and the fact that he is currently fronting his least interesting band, the New Power Generation, the Artist’s dazzling showmanship and astute musicality still managed to rise to the fore in his performance last week at the MCI Center. After a rousing opening by legendary bassist Larry Graham and his outfit Graham Central Station and a crowd-pleasing set by soul diva Chaka Khan, the skeletal stage morphed into the Artist’s cheesy playground, with garish props that looked like leftovers from the UniverSoul Circus: a grand lavender piano with “Beautiful” inscribed across it, two gold lions, and an enormous set of female legs (à la Logan Circle’s finest) dangling backstage. Lanterns augmented the lighting, and the background screen was peppered with twinkling lights to create that special Quiet Storm effect. Compared with the high-budget indulgence of the Lovesexy tour, the set seemed to arrive straight from Vegas.
The Artist seemed to care little about the cheap decor. He had come to party, with few intentions of making bold new musical statements, settling old scores, or promoting his forgettable new CD, New Power Soul. Like Graham and Khan, the Artist mixed a blues-drenched cocktail of old favorites. He was wiser but no less mischievous, coming onstage with the pompous swagger of a ’70s pimp flashing a flamboyant costume and carrying a cane.
Although the New Power Generation’s muscular sound fit the Artist’s funk workouts on “Delirious” and “I Would Die 4 U,” the band seemed to hold him back on the more fancifully arranged “Raspberry Beret,” “Take Me With U,” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Drummer Kirk Johnson and bassist Rhonda Smith served as solid anchors but nothing more; guitarist Mike Scott dug into some chunky, bluesy solos and delightful riffs; and keyboardist Morris Hayes insulated the music with dense organ chords. But the band never projected a distinctive identity. Guest alto saxophonist Candy Dulfer, who tried to conjure the edgy riffs and blues wails of Maceo Parker and David Sanborn, sounded at best like a member of Saturday Night Live’s house band. Old-school rapper Doug E. Fresh cajoled the crowd as the Artist pranced across the stage, but he seemed out of place on the rock anthems “The Cross” and “Purple Rain.”
Fortunately, the Artist’s boundless guitar virtuosity was still intact in miniature suites of his greatest hits. When he commenced in his signature emotive lyricism on “Purple Rain,” one of the most memorable guitar solos of the ’80s, he blew my hair back. During the extended guitar section of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” the Artist’s amazing scale runs and blues-inflected single-note wails evoked the magic of Carlos Santana or Frank Zappa. But the song that best showcased his guitar artistry was the sensual slow grinder “The Ride,” which aptly illustrates his blues roots.
He even shoehorned in a toast to D.C. with a brief go-go set, as Doug E. Fresh led the audience through a handful of hiphop classics. The weird juxtapositions of raunchy funk and spiritual rock were at times hard to follow, yet the Artist’s allure was unstinting. He abruptly ended Doug E. Fresh’s vintage hiphop with a steamy suite of ballads that made the audience swoon in ecstasy. On piano, he pecked out brief segments of “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Nothing Compares 2 U;” later, he nearly incited a riot as he teased the audience with “Darling Nikki.” With still enough hits left to continue for three days, the Artist concluded a lively, all too brief concert with a medley of “Take Me With U” and “Raspberry Beret.”
Will this go down as one of his most memorable performances ever? Hell no. But who cares? The Artist’s worst effort still outshines the best of the derivative Maxwell or Lenny Kravitz. With no new revelations or musical coups made, the performance was nothing but a party, and sometimes a great party is good enough.CP