If energy and ambition were the only criteria used to judge concerts, Prince’s run of shows Saturday at the L.A. Live entertainment complex would have been an unqualified success. The three consecutive shows (at the 7,100-seat Nokia Theater, the 1,000-capacity Conga Room and the 2,300- capacity Club Nokia, respectively), each featuring a different band and wildly divergent moods, offered five hours of music over an eight-hour period — an undertaking impressive in scope, an attempt to make good on Prince’s boast late in the first show that “I am music.” But bedeviled by sound problems, logistical hiccups that kept fans waiting in interminable lines (the Club Nokia show started while the aud was still filing in) and snowballing delays that pushed the final show until 1 a.m. (an hour after the announced starting time), the evening ended up as mixed bag.
The event mirrored the tripartite nature of Prince’s latest release, a three-CD set released on his NPG label, and available since Tuesday on his Lotusflow3r.com website and on-sale Sunday at Target stores (which were incessantly hyped on the video screens prior to the Nokia Theater show). The shows could be seen as roughly analogous to the three CDs: the lean, hit-heavy grooves of the Nokia Theater to the retro-Prince funk of “MPLSoUND,” the Hendrix-inspired power trio at the Conga Room to the guitar-rocking “Lotusflow3r,” and the leaden fusion and bedroom ballads performed at Club Nokia to the uninspired seductions of “Elixer” (credited to Bria Valente, Prince’s latest breathy-voiced female protege). But the shows also turned progressively more self-indulgent, so much so that if a fourth show were scheduled, it might have featured Prince showing slides from the family’s trip to Mt. Rushmore, accompanied by a ukulele solo.
The Nokia Theater set was Prince’s roadshow: a standard performance, a default run-though of hits with a few covers tossed in for good measure. Backed by a four-piece band (and three backing singers) that included a sinewy rhythm section and a bluesy harmonica flitting in and out of the grooves, and lots of room for guitar solos, he opened the show with “Old Skool Company.” One of the highlights from “MLPSoUND,” it’s a lanky groove that posits music as a balm against hard times. And the rest of the 90-minute set tried to set a party mood: “1999,” “Kiss,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” covers of Tommy James and the Shondell’s “Crimson and Clover” (with a bit of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” tossed in), Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” (with the vocal handled by a member of the aud), Kool and the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” and the Beatles “Come Together.”
But, in what would prove to be the evening’s recurring theme, the sound was terrible. The vocals were distorted and staticky, like an old album played by a dusty stylus, his guitar kept feeding back and the drums lacked punch. Prince, who looked to be in a good mood, proved his mettle as an entertainer, gamely playing through the glitches. But about a half-hour in, he demanded the monitors cut, which dissipated what little energy the show had built up, and Prince was forced to fall back on his old school R&B moves: leading the aud in call and response vocals, demanding hands to clap and bodies to sway, and repeating “Hollywood” for an easy cheer. Not even a surprise appearance by Sheila E for “Glamorous Life” could raise the show out of the ordinary.
Matters improved markedly for the Conga Room show. Playing to the smallest aud of the evening, he opted to front a Band of Gypsys-inspired power trio. Backed by longtime friends Sonny T. on bass and the enormous, volcanic Michael Bland on drums, Prince played an ecstatically powerful, hourlong set of funk-inflected classic rock and blues, running through a rocking “All Shook Up,” a greasy “With A Little Help From My Friends,” a flinty “When You Were Mine” and two of “Lotusflow3r’s” more political songs, “Colonized Mind” and Dreamer.” He soloed extensively, playing with a chunky, overdriven tone that recalled Hendrix (an influence he acknowledged with a cover of “Spanish Castle Magic”). It was the kind of set you could imagine the young Prince playing at some dingy roadhouse 30 years ago, and the musicians played with the kind the relaxed familiarity that only comes with time (that familiarity may also have helped them to play through the problems with the stage sound). It might have been indulgent, but the music was played with such joy and warmth, it transcended it.
That, unfortunately, was not to be the case at Club Nokia. Leading a quartet that occupied the uncomfortable space where fusion and prog-rock meet, Prince squandered a chance to end the evening on with an exclamation point, choosing instead the drifting off of an ellipsis. The spotlight fell more on the band (especially keyboard player Renato Neto) than the star, who spent much of the 90-minute set off to the side. In his defense, this may have been due to yet another sound problem affecting his guitar. And this time, he voiced his frustration, complaining that the room has the worst sound he had ever experienced and calling out executives of the club’s owner, AEG, by name. But when he sang — utilizing his stunning falsetto on “The Beautiful Ones” — the mood perked up.
The aud was also growing restive, wondering when they might hear some familiar material. Ever the showman, Prince accommodated them with an encore that included Chaka Khan joining him for “Sweet Thing” and a finale of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” his heartwrenching 1981 song that was a hit in 1990 for Sinead O’Connor.
And it’s true: nothing compares to Prince. It may have been seven hours from start to finish, but even as he disappoints, he makes it impossible not to come away impressed by his breadth and facility as a musician.