Prince’s residency at the Dakota Jazz Club may not be over — he is planning to host a lounge-y dance party/DJ night tomorrow, and still has a hold on the venue for Sunday and Monday nights — but Friday marked the end of the a three-night run of intimate and wildly different rehearsal concerts that are sure to live on in infamy.
As promised, each night had a distinctive feel; Wednesday night’s pair of “improv/drummer audition” sets found Prince leading the latest configuration of the New Power Generation through a series of heady, instrumental jams, while the same band tightened things up considerably for Thursday’s “jam” gigs and mixed in a a selection of well-known hits. Friday’s “surprise” shows, on the other hand, rebuilt the entire experience from scratch, swapping out the sprawling 12-piece band that backed Prince those first two nights for a slimmed-down power trio and a few extra PAs, and clearing out the tables on the Dakota’s main floor to transform the space into a straight-up rock club.
Tickets for Friday’s shows were by far the priciest of the week at $250 a pop, and yet ironically the people who paid the most to stand on their hind legs in front of Prince seemed the least interested in dancing to his music; for the majority of his two-hour late-night set, the hard-partying crowd alternated between loudly talking over the music and standing stalk-still, staring reverently at the Purple One as he played.
As with Thursday’s shows, Prince kept the lights turned way down low and the fog machine cranked high, but he did opt to perform sans sunglasses, making a few genuine attempts to connect with the crowd. “Somebody come dance with me,” he requested during new song “Screwdriver,” following it up moments later with an apologetic “just kidding,” while a few moments later he was pleading for “everyone upstairs” to “be quiet and listen” to the softer passages of his moody 1998 ballad “Beautiful Strange.”
The wall between performer and fan was erased once and for all with his fourth song of the night, the iconic “Purple Rain,” which found Prince tenderly placing a cherry red guitar into the hands of several front-row fans and requesting they hold onto it as he gingerly plugged in a cord and attached a strap to either end of the instrument. It was a dramatic moment that drew out the introduction to that song even longer than usual, and by the time he started playing and made his way to the song’s soaring solo the crowd was prepared to time-travel with him wherever he wanted to go.
The rest of the set found him jumping back and forth between earlier and later eras of his career, and it was clear that he had planned out the set list to complement his new backing band’s strengths. Guitarist Donna Grantis was an unflappable foil and showed she was more than capable of supporting Prince as he laid down Hendrix-invoking riffs on punchy songs like “Guitar” and “I Like it There,” and bassist Ida Nielsen and drummer Hannah Ford proved to be a powerhouse rhythm section. While all three supporting musicians are clearly experts at their instruments, the set definitely felt like a rehearsal at times, with the players still feeling each other out and figuring out how to settle into a groove.
His young new bandmates might also be responsible for some of Prince’s newfound playfulness. At one point in the encore, drummer Ford emerged with a light-up spirit hood straight out of a jam band festival and Prince followed soon after sporting his own furry lion hat; he kept that prop atop his head for his entire performance of “The Record” and “Compassion,” an image that will forever remain imprinted on my retinas.
At the end of encore closer “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” meanwhile, he inserted a line about “a whole bunch of people in Minnesota that say ain’t nobody do it like Prince do,” then blew kisses at the crowd and jokingly shouted “At your service!”
It’s hard to say exactly what Prince is gearing up for with these rehearsal gigs, but his new backing trio — who proudly displayed the logo for mystery Twitter persona 3rd Eye Girl on their drum kit, and may even be called 3rd Eye Girl themselves — have continued releasing a steady stream of hints about the band’s future and indications that they’re anticipating an action-packed 2013. Regardless, these back-to-back nights at the Dakota provided hometown fans a rare glimpse at the inner-workings of an artist who often seems all too elusive. A week for the history books, to be sure.
I Like it There
She’s Always in My Hair
Instrumental piano ballad
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man