To misquote the master himself: His name is Prince, and he is vampy. Last night at the United Center in Chicago, Prince kicked off a three-night residency with a strangely subdued show that was by turns puzzling and anti-climactic. While Prince is never not energetic – most artists would have to work overtime to approach the singer at his most restrained – over the course of his two-hour set he continually ceded choruses, verses, entire songs to his trio of backup singers and the audience. You go to see Prince to hear him sing Purple Rain, not hear the drunk chicks from Berwyn seated behind you scream it.
The night closed with a long encore, and when Prince sank below the stage, the houselights stayed down while fans waited and waited, stomped and screamed, eventually filtering out as stagehands swept the stage; periodic waves of impatient booing swept through the crowd. After approximately an hour, Prince reappeared and treated the enduring few to two more songs.
The evening started off with promise, Prince taking the stage in a trademark look of a suit that was a bit of a "Batdance"-era sartorial throwback, half and half black tuxedo-tail and white suit, warning the audience, "You better call the babysitter – we're gonna be here all night!" He shimmied and wiggled and thrusted his way around his love-symbol stage, putting his mostly female backing band through their paces. He conducted the massive 11-piece horn section on an adjacent stage with a swift whip of his hand, like he was flipping on a light switch. He seemed content to prance around the stage demanding "more horns" and assessing himself as "2 funky," theatrically cocking an ear to cue the audience to carry the chorus themselves.
The first hour was paced like a medley, song after song ebbing into each other, a mix of covers (Aretha, Curtis Mayfield), hits and songs Prince wrote that were popularized by other singers, including the Time's "The Bird," "Glamorous Life" and Sinead O'Connor's 1989 Number One, "Nothing Compares 2 U." On "Nothing," Prince laid back and let his featured singer, Shelby Johnson, do the heavy lifting, her sequined bald head shining under the stage lights. From there, they went to an endless gospel rendition of Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," a band showcase that grew torpid as the minutes passed. The constant deferring to his band was an unexpected bit of largesse, but for a Prince show, there was a surprising lack of Prince.
Finally, an hour in, he picked up his guitar, but it was only a brief flirtation, giving a few quick peals of solo and a spare arrangement of "Take Me With U." The second half of the show was certainly larded with hits, though many of them were given new arrangements that hewed to the style of his later era, relieving them of their familiar tautness. A chorus and verse of "Raspberry Beret" melded into "C.R.E.A.M"; Prince sauntered to the lip of the stage and explained he wrote that one "while looking in the mirror." "Who remembers the Eighties?" he demanded before reviving us with an electric hit from 1979, Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."
Twenty-two songs into his set came "Purple Rain" as a full-tilt production, replete with confetti cannons spewing purple paper rain, banners symbolizing lightning, thunder samples and the bandleader's purple piano lit up with LED lightning. The band vamped the opening measures for several minutes before Prince rose up through the stage, appearing through the mist. He paced the stage and delivered a monologue on love, asking rather rhetorically, "Do u love me?," urging the audience to turn to their seatmate and tell them "I love you" and reminding us he was in Chicago because "I want 2 B here." He ceded the song's famous solo to the tenor sax player before donning his guitar, teasing "Can I play this thing?," which he did for about 90 seconds before tossing it to the guy who catches Prince's guitars.
With a thank you and goodnight, he sank under the stage, purple raindrops still fluttering in the air . . . only to reappear for a revue-style encore a few minutes later. Treating the audience to popular favorites and shouting "I got 2 many hits!" Prince stood by his piano, seemingly triggering samples and snippets of "Kiss," "When Doves Cry" and a faithful version of "Housequake." There was a centerstage spotlight dance of freeze-poses and ass-wagging and "If I Was Your Girlfriend" performed atop the piano. Prince was smiling, goofing, spoon-feeding the audience the songs they came for, and would gladly take, even in his bizarre Prince-doing-Prince-karaoke form.