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Pop Music Review : Amiable Prince Previews New Show

May 26, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — Prince's concert at the Warfield Theatre here Friday night was the third in a series of recent warm-up dates in connection with the controversial pop star's expected summer tour. Let's hope there'll be a fourth warm-up. Prince needs to rethink some of this show.

Because all 2,200 tickets were sold in just 17 minutes after the concert was announced Wednesday, there was an enormous electricity in and around the Warfield. How often do you get the chance to see a star of Prince's stature previewing a new show in a small hall? Scalpers lined the street in front of the theater and hundreds of fans stood by the stage door, hoping to get a glimpse of their hero.

Inside the Warfield, most of the fans stood on their feet in the old movie theater from the moment the opening notes of the light and inviting "Around the World in a Day" filtered through the closed curtain until Prince left the stage 2 1/2 hours later.

But even that affection couldn't hide the fact that this show--which was previewed earlier in Minneapolis and Boston--needs more of the one thing it most seeks to present: the human side of Prince.

The concept of the new show appears sound: a fast-moving revue that casts Prince in the informal role of an amiable, old-fashioned bandleader--someone who might have played the Cocoanut Grove in the days of Pickford and Harlow, and who would probably stop by your table for a drink between sets.

Though he only stepped from the stage to actually mingle with the crowd twice, Prince acknowledged the audience at every turn--either winking or slapping hands with people in the front rows, making humorous asides or inviting someone on stage to dance.

This constant courting made the evening seem like one long dramatization of the mood of Prince's latest hit single, "Kiss." He was sometimes playful, sometimes sexy and aggressive, but he was always trying to seduce.

Much like the old bandleaders, Prince also shared the stage with his expanded Revolution band, establishing a sense of community--joking with them and allowing everyone from the guitarists to the saxophonist to take solos on the hard-edged and funk-accented music.

On one hand, this warmer approach was a major--and welcome--change from the rock-star egotism and conventional format of the "Purple Rain" tour, which was suffocated by Prince's sexual posturing and clumsy, overblown skits.

Several costume changes added a bright touch of color (he moved in the show from a gray, paisley bolero outfit with a bare midriff to a yellow double-breasted suit), and the musical arrangements were frequently imaginative.

Rather than perform the songs as separate entities, tunes from various albums have been linked together in aggressive, highly rhythmic couplings to build a dazzling sense of non-stop energy.

Yet, all of this seemed secondary. The show appeared chiefly designed to present Prince--widely viewed as arrogant and aloof after the "Purple Rain" success--in a more sympathetic and human setting; a musician who is enjoying himself in a creative environment.

And you can't help but wonder if this energy wouldn't better have been served by just turning the show into a one-time cable TV special. It's easy to picture him getting as bored with the show by the time it works its way across country as he seemed to be with "Purple Rain" by the end of that marathon tour.

That's because there simply isn't enough revelation or provocation in the production to live up to Prince's early standards. During the "Dirty Mind" and "1999" tours, Prince came on with a sexual renegade stance that challenged social assumptions ("Am I black or white/Am I straight or gay?") more forcefully than any major pop figure since David Bowie.

There was no time in Friday's show where you learned anything about Prince or yourself. There were no questions posed, no answers given, no new emotions shared.

Except when he sat at the piano and sang "Under a Cherry Moon," the delicate title song from his uncoming movie, or when he led the band through the anthem-like "Purple Rain," he was like a blur racing across the stage.

It's fine to try to make the audience feel like it's part of the show. It's nice to make the band feel like co-stars. But Prince's primary obligation is to himself and his art, and he comes across in this show as perilously close to having nothing new or important to say. Without a strong personal vision on stage, the fact that you are a nice guy is a bit beside the point.

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