Like most of rock’s great musical iconoclasts, Prince has always demonstrated a certain – to be polite – mercurial nature when it comes to live performance. In recent years, he’s shown a propensity for coasting his way through arena shows, seemingly in an effort to save energy for the surprise after-hours gigs that invariably followed.
But at this, the first night of his so-called Welcome to America tour – a bit of a misnomer, given that the jaunt takes place in all of two cities situated a full three miles apart – the Purple One hit the ground running and didn’t let up for the 100 minute duration of his set. Alternating between hormonally-charged takes on tunes like “Cream” – dedicated to himself – and more languid numbers like “Nothing Compares 2 U,” he stretched things admirably, both in terms of song length and arrangement extravagance.
The perf included a smattering of newer material, highlighted by the lustrous “Black Muse,” but there was a decided air of nostalgia, a feel emphasized by Prince’s use of a stage shaped like the old glyph symbol that once replaced his name. Rather than relegate his past hits to snippets in a medley (another shortcut common to recent appearances) he opted to give fuller readings, all the better to spotlight the expanse of “Raspberry Beret” and the rumbling “Housequake” that wrapped up a nearly half-hour-long second encore.
Yes, he was cantankerous enough to issue a list of ground rules – including a ban on cameras (which was strictly enforced) and cell phones (which wasn’t) – but once the proceedings got underway, Prince seemed willing to toss away the rulebook. He dipped deep for relative obscurities (like a suitably preening “All the Critics Love U In New York,” altered, naturally, to reflect the New Jersey setting) and peppered the program with surprising covers, including a charged rendition of Chic’s “Le Freak.” Perhaps most importantly, he didn’t spend all that much time away from center stage. Yes, there were duets with openers Lalah Hathaway (on “Sometimes It Snows in April”) and surprise Grammy nominee Esperanza Spalding (on “If I Was Your Girlfriend”), but they provided the icing, not the cake.
Given the fact that he hadn’t performed an official show in the area for more than four years, ticket sales were not particularly strong. The original opening night’s show was canceled due to “scheduling difficulties,” while the house at this perf was perhaps three-quarters full. Tickets remain available for the remaining dates, which were spaced out perhaps in anticipation of a presumptive necessity to add further shows.
Prince will perform tonight at the Izod Center, and at Madison Square Garden tomorrow, December 29th and January 18th.