When Prince pulls into town for a residency — L.A. follows Las Vegas, with London next — he plays by his own rules, catering to no one. He opened a seven-show stand in a section of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel that has too many hard surfaces to reproduce music clearly; he started his two-hour show an hour and 40 minutes late; and much of his time onstage was spent in the dark with no onstage lighting. Despite a set list peppered with hits (“Kiss,” “U Got the Look,” “Purple Rain”), the current Prince show is about establishing an old school James Brown-inspired groove and going to town with it, singing about sex and romance and unleashing powerful guitar solos to keep pace with the fiery work of his horn section.
Prince gave up on delivering fan-friendly shows when he switched his name to a symbol and renounced the landmark work he did in the 1980s. His most high-profile appearances in recent years — on the Grammys with Beyonce, at the Super Bowl this year — have been expert perfs seemingly designed as reclamation events. Don’t count me out, he appeared to be saying in those globally beamed telecasts; once an audience is in a room with him, however — and it doesn’t matter if it’s Staples Center or this intimate setting — he refuses to do anything that would satisfy an aud’s nostalgic impulses.
Four-member horn section entered the room playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and once they took their places onstage, the full band swung into “Down by the Riverside.” That was it for the sounds of a Sunday revival: Prince took the stage and immediately swung the show back to Saturday night with “Satisfied,” one of “3121’s” slow jam odes to seduction. Prince, who started the concert in all white and ended it in matching red jacket and bowler hat, played guitar hero — all Fenders, nothing crazy — and on that count he delivered the anticipated thrills. Otherwise, the night was a bit at odds with itself: Two strong femme dancer-singers whipped through some impressive choreography, while the band approached the event as an impromptu jam session for some well-heeled friends.
Room was filled with couches and coffee tables, and Prince was in a chatty mood, walking through the crowd and talking to patrons while the band jammed; he invited Nikka Costa onstage to sing (actually, scream) the opening of “Purple Rain” and took the mic into the crowd, where he found few willing rappers or singers.
Something clearly bothered him early on, and he walked to the back of the club to have a chat with the sound man. When a handful of stage lights went on during the early perfs, “3121” and “Cream,” he shouted, “Turn the lights off,” and went back to playing in the dark — a bona fide mood killer.
Intriguingly, when he told the audience to rise and dance or sit and listen, they responded en masse, yet when the main show concluded with a throw-away reading of “Purple Rain,” the minimal applause was drowned out by the rumble of a synthesizer and audience chatter. As evenings go, this one ended with a thud saved by an energetic three-song encore –“Get on the Boat,” a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and “Nothing Compares 2 U.” That gave a needed lift to the crowd, which ventured into a separate area where the band led a jam session that Prince made it to at 4 a.m.
Band definitely has its act together. Maceo Parker, the former James Brown saxophonist who has been working on and off with Prince for some time now, was consistently fiery and delivered a sharp reading of Bob Thiele-penned Louis Armstrong hit “What a Wonderful World.” Backup singer Shelby J hollered a version of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” that was straight out of the back woods; drummer Cora Coleman Dunham was locked in on the groove all night.
Hotel is selling a package deal for $3,121 per couple that includes dinner and guarantees seats on the couches, a number of which were filled with celebrities rather than paying customers. (Dinner patrons did get to dance onstage for one number). Opening night attracted Suge Knight, Erykah Badu, Rick Fox and Penelope Cruz.