All Good Things They Say Never Last

As discussed on this site in September

I wasn’t able to get tickets to the Piano and a Microphone tour when it played the Paramount Theater in February, but when an Oracle Arena show was announced days later, there was no way I was going to miss it. We were discussing babysitting options for our eight-year-old son when my wife said, “We should just take the kid to the show. Prince isn’t getting any younger. What if this is the last time he comes around?”

This sounded ridiculous to me. Prince loved the Bay Area. He would be back soon and often. And I wasn’t 100% sure that he wasn’t getting younger. But the boy was doing well in his piano classes, and his sensitive ears weren’t ready for screaming guitars, so it seemed like a good fit for his first concert. I bought three tickets, and I am so glad I did.

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My $5 bootleg t-shirt purchased in the Cow Palace parking lot in 1985 shriveled after one washing, but at least it still fits an eight-year-old

That concert was one year ago today. Given the events of the last year, it’s hard to put this show into proper perspective. I’ll meet you back here in four years and we’ll discuss it with clearer eyes, okay? But for now…

I have seen Prince live 17 times, and only one could qualify as a disappointment: an abbreviated set in Concord in 1998. There was nothing wrong with Prince’s performance that night, and Chaka Khan was electric as an opener, but about an hour into Prince’s set, he started complaining about ankle pain. I remember exactly what I was thinking at the time: You’re an amazing dancer and guitar player, but I have no problem listening to you play the piano for the next few hours. Grab an ice pack, take a seat, and let’s all get comfortable.

He did not take me up on my telepathic and less-than-empathetic offer, and minutes later the show was over. But ever since then, I had wondered what a solo Prince-and-piano concert would be like. It took me more than 17 years to get my answer: dazzling.

The trade-off was considerable. The show lacked Prince’s legendary guitar skills, of course, and contained only a few flashes of dancing. Whether Prince was goofing with his band or challenging them to keep up, that onstage dynamic was always fascinating. What the fans got in return was a paradoxically intimate performance in a 20,000-seat venue, and an opportunity to focus on the underrated piano skills of a true virtuoso.

If you shuffled a stack of recent setlists, you might have trouble identifying this one as a piano-only show. It checks all the boxes you would expect from the full band. There were songs strongly associated with the guitar (“I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man,” “Purple Rain”). There were mega-hits (“Kiss,” ”Little Red Corvette”), crowd favorites (“If I Was Your Girlfriend,” ”The Beautiful Ones”), singalongs (“Cream,” ”Raspberry Beret”), protest songs (“Baltimore,” ”Dear Mr. Man”), old rarities (“Purple Music,” ”A Place In Heaven”), eclectic covers (“Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” ”Waiting In Vain”) and not-too-religious-to-still-be-a-little-naughty classics (“Dirty Mind,” ”Do Me, Baby”). There was local pandering (Steph Curry’s name was dropped in “Free Urself”), and the usual collection of snippets and medleys that make any Prince setlist an incomplete story. Beyond all that there was a staple of Prince concerts: logistical drama.

It’s not unusual for Prince to keep fans waiting outside while he fiddles around in soundcheck. But before this show, the doors had already opened when Prince decided something needed fixing. So, the 20,000 fans were banished to the meager concourses of Oracle Arena for a few hours. When you consider Prince’s long and active career of perfectionism (and other quirks), and add in all of the times he has followed a scheduled concert with an impromptu aftershow, I would imagine that more fans have spent more time waiting for Prince than for any other artist in history! It’s always a small price to pay, forgotten once the lights go down.

Eventually we were allowed to take our seats, and Prince began the show with “Wow.” With 3rdEyeGirl behind him, the restrained verses of “Wow” play against the thumping guitars of the chorus. On this night, the restraint played against the energy of a delirious crowd. That, and the conversational first verse, made this underappreciated gem a perfect opener.

Hello. How are U?
U’re lookin’ so fine. No, it’s true.
Remember the time we first met?
U think that was good? U ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

He stormed through a blistering set of 25 songs before taking his first break. The first act closed with a run pulled straight from the concert of my dreams: “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Starfish and Coffee,” “Paisley Park,” “Sometimes It Snows In April,” “Purple Rain,” “Black Sweat,” and “Kiss.” I’m not sure if I’d ever heard “Starfish and Coffee,” “Paisley Park,” or “Sometimes It Snows In April” live before. Prince’s third (!!) encore began with a medley of two more greats from 25-30 years ago that I’ve never heard live: “Thieves In The Temple” and “It.” He allowed himself one “cheat” by launching the sampled beat of “When Doves Cry,” a song that’s difficult to pull off live and isn’t played nearly as often as you might imagine.

Some songs were perfect for the piano setting of course, most notably “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” and “The Beautiful Ones,” which built to a delicious crescendo of shrieking and piano bench kicking. Piano instrumentals “Venus de Milo” and “Under The Cherry Moon” highlighted the incredible musicianship of the Parade era. Prince played the conclusion of “Under The Cherry Moon” four times in a row, hamming up his dissatisfaction with the results.

Seven weeks later, it was tough not to look back and dissect this show in search of clues or poignancy. What sort of physical condition was he in? He had a cane onstage, but he has used a cane as a prop for decades. He rode a tricked-out bicycle from the stage to the dressing room. Was biking somehow easier on his hips than walking, or was it just more Princely flair. Was the entire idea of a seated-at-the-piano tour born out of medical necessity, or did he have something to prove?

After Prince’s passing, a title like “A Place In Heaven” jumps out at me, a song that, if setlists.fm is to be believed, was recorded in 1986 and never performed live for 30 years. Prince has talked about learning to play “Over The Rainbow” as a young child, so it was a natural choice for a piano show, but still a poignant one. “Sometimes It Snows In April” is always heartbreaking; it’s just about unbearable to consider this performance just weeks before his April death. And given his cause of death, I cringe when I recall him singing the anti-drug lyrics from the 1982 rarity “Purple Music”:

Don’t need no reefer, don’t need cocaine
Purple Music does the same 2 my brain
And I’m high… so high…

There is no way you could look at that performance and think that Prince was in any way mentally impaired, however. His incomparable musicianship, stamina, and connection with the crowd were all too hard to fake. I believed Prince would live forever when I walked into Oracle that night, and I still believed this when I walked… enough of that… I’m not accomplishing anything here. Again, I still lack perspective on all of this.

***

The long show didn’t even begin until well after my son’s bedtime. Here’s a sentence I could never imagine writing in 1984: My eight-year-old began to fade somewhere in the middle of “Do Me, Baby.” When you’re too young and tired to process the lyrics, an acoustic “Do Me, Baby” is a bit of a lullaby, I suppose. As Prince began the glorious “Adore,” I reluctantly threw the kid over my shoulder and slowly began the walk up the stairs towards the concourse.

I paused at the top of the section; “Adore” is another favorite I’ve rarely heard live, and I couldn’t walk out just yet. And it was there that I heard the last words that Prince would ever sing to me.

4 all time I am with U, U are with me
U are with me
U are with me

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