The O2

Prince is the real deal. Whether you like (or even recognise, which frankly I don’t always) his music or not, no one can deny that he is one hell of a showman. He can actually play his instrument. He can sing. He can write songs that work for other artists (not always a given.) And he can put on a show.

Which is why, despite his not being my favourite artist by a long chalk, I wanted to see him. I like the fact that he is an innovator – and still, after all these years, a rebel. The very fact that he chose not to ‘sell’ his latest album at all was a financial coup – he’s made far more cash out of it than he ever would at 13.99 in the shops, by giving it away under very strict circumstances – and he’s managed to beat the internet download scene at its own game.

I had high hopes for last night’s show. And to some extent they were fulfilled. I love performances in the round and it works superbly well for the moment – the age of radio microphones is enjoying a tiny window of hubris before the government sells off so much bandwidth that soon The Purple One will once again share a microphone with local cab drivers and the evangelical church around the corner.

But that’s for tomorrow. For the moment Prince can prance around a central stage, built in the shape of his trademark squiggle, and which lights up very pleasingly with various colours and with a little trapdoor in the middle through which the man himself is propelled up and down like a character from Camberwick Green, aided and abetted by a band of superb quality (naturally) led by alto saxophonist Maceo Parker.

At least I think it was him. If I’m honest I was so far away I couldn’t be totally sure of anything. It could have been Kenny G for all I could tell. And that was the problem for me. That arena is so bloomin’ huge that it’s hard to get into music that feels like it’s a quarter of a mile away. I enjoyed watching the show, but never really felt engaged with it.

The plasma screens helped a bit. From them I could tell that Prince still looks about 10 years old and he’s still a Very Little Man. I could tell that he was giving it everything he had and that he lives for his moments on stage. I could tell that the dancers – all legs and attitude – were giving it everything they had but in my humble opinion looked as though they’d been given a little girl’s dressing-up box to clothe themselves with. I’ll swear that was a net curtain and a couple of pillowcases with swirls painted on them. Mr Prince’s outfit was surprisingly demure as well – simple trouser suits with a few discreet sparkles and Harry Hill collars. I’d have liked a bit more traditional flamboyance, but maybe that’s just me.

But the clothes don’t make the performance. What he was wearing merely covered the powerhouse underneath and this guy didn’t stop for two and a half hours, including encores that seemed to last longer than the show itself. We had renditions of all his hits – “I’ve had so many hits,” he kept modestly announcing. The only break was a frankly cheesy version of Wonderful World by Mr Parker, which though nice at first began very quickly to suffer from the classic jazz/pop crossover saxophonist’s problem of too many notes.

Prince cannot give anything but everything and his show was as full of energy and power as ever, but for me it all felt a bit academic. It was just so far away. The sightlines were great (leg room not quite so) but it was like looking the wrong way through a telescope. It wasn’t helped by the one selfish cow who decided to stand up and wave herself around throughout, which I guarantee wouldn’t have improved her view one iota but which completely blocked the vision of those behind her. I wasn’t one of them, but I felt sorry for them – shouting at her to sit down so that everyone else could see had no effect whatsoever. She was enjoying herself, sod everyone else. I shake my head.

Two last Phantom Tips, for if you’re planning to go to one of the other 20 performances. Firstly, although the doors open at 6.00pm, the show doesn’t start until 8.30pm. Secondly, when the show ends, even if the lights go up, don’t be in too much of a hurry to leave. If you haven’t had two and a half hours of purple prancing, chances are the show’s not over yet. Last night, after multiple encores, and the total exit of the entire band, the lights went up and a good half of the audience left, before a roar of approval heralded Our Main Man, walking back through the audience armed just with a guitar. He went back and did a couple of simple numbers, just him and what was left of the audience, before being joined by the entire band for a good twenty minutes more. You have been warned…

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