Prince at the Roseland Ballroom – Concert Review by James Campion

East Coast Rocker 1/25/97

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince
Roseland Ballroom 1/11/97

New York City

It was sometime around 10:30 PM huddled behind a sizable sound board amidst the screaming throng, when a bolt of memory crashed into the side of my skull with the sheer force of a gale wind. It was something Tori Amos had told The Chicago Tribune in response to a question about the source of creativity.

The words jumped off the page that day as clearly as they rammed a particularly tender side of my brain, which was being throttled by the second hour of another high-octane show by The Artist, the first musical event staged in New York City since the appellative death of Prince Rogers Nelson. ““This is what my life is”,” Amos said. ““These beings. They come in and out like fragments.””

My eyes were transfixed by the five-foot dynamo dressed in a black pinstripe outfit with tails and a high collar, who hadn’’t stopped moving to the push and pull of the rhythms pulsating from his five-piece band, as if he were willed by the music like a marionette dangling from invisible strings.

Surely The Artist had reinvented himself for the duration of his 17-year career, changing fashion and hairstyle with the same schizophrenic passion as David Bowie, but most of all he had continually transformed himself musically; crawling inside various genres and striking its muse like the second and third comings of Frank Zappa. These songs, hundreds a year, were pouring out of him like separate beings, many fragments of one man.

The other words which came to mind just then were the ones written in bold print on the press pass folded in the breast pocket of my winter coat: EMANCIPATION CELEBRATION. The show was in every sense an outpouring of freedom and intense expression from the opening note of “”Jam Of The Year”,” which by no coincidence is the overture to The Artist’’s latest collection of “beings.” The 36-song opus, arguably his finest and most consistent body of work since the brilliant, Sign ‘’O’ The Times nine years ago, marks the end of his epic battle with Warner Bros. and supposedly heralds the long-awaited DAWN; first promised on the inside jacket of his most popular record, Purple Rain.

“This is not a promotion for anything,” The Artist told the eclectic, sold-out crowd. “From now on this is all about love for one another.” This prompted even the most cynical among us, who might have raised an eyebrow or two when first hearing about the man’’s name becoming a self-styled symbol, to feel the effusive energy and burning spirit.

What was more of an impromptu show than his polished tours, it pulsated without the usual pretense. Unlike the stage epics I’’d seen in the past, dating back to the original Revolution, this was an isolated event, less contrived and vibrating with a looser array of songs and jams.

The latest incarnation of The Artist’’s New Power Generation band featured two keyboards, drums, and exceptional female guitar and bass players. Tight as a glove and responding to the slightest movement of The Artist’’s hip grind, or wave of his hand, this musical ensemble, like so many of his in the past, was akin to a collection of sonic pinball ornaments throwing around staccato breaks and flowing changes in key and tempo. Each song segued perfectly into another with The Artist as the disc-jockey; conjuring up an invisible conductor to some triumphant symphony in his head. He jumped onto piano, guitar, and bass, to initially spice up the musical soup, but would inevitably explode over the top as if the entire song was written for its purpose.

The unexpected treat of the relaxed atmosphere was the passionate rediscovery of older numbers like “”Purple Rain”,” and B-side rarities like “’17 Days”,” and “”How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”” The latter becoming an all-out gospel rendition complete with searing organ yelps and jazzy chords played by The Artist, who leaned purposely over a powder-blue baby grand piano while playfully camping with the audience. Having disdained his bulging catalog the last few years there seemed–on the night– to be also an emancipation of fan favorites like ““If I Was Your Girlfriend”,” ““The Cross”,” ““Sexy MF”,” “Take Me With You”,” and “”Raspberry Beret”,” to which he let the crowd sing the infectious chorus and asked genuinely surprised, “”You remember this?””

The highlight of the memory-lane portion of the show rested in a soulful and sexually charged medley of The Artist’’s finest romantic ballads, beginning with a 10-minute instrumental wherein every member of the band took a solo. The almost half-hour ride through songs like ““Do Me Baby”,” ““Adore”,” and ““Scandalous”” presented a side of The Artist which is often taken for granted, since these are the tunes he can seemingly pen during a lengthy yawn. But the joint truly imploded whenever one of his new songs would crash the party with a savage kick drum and an ungodly groove, illustrating some of The Artist’’s slickest and funkiest licks in years. Through each scorching number he looked reborn, not just as an artist, but as a person; removing the screen he’’d so carefully built between himself and the audience for so many years.

Songs like “”Get Yo Groove On”,” ““Right Back Here in Your Arms”,” and ““Mr. Happy”,” which recall the sounds of James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind an Fire, still leaves his stamp in the equation; proving his exceptional songwriting prowess, while exhibiting why he is the perfect performer; an amalgamation of talent and gall enough to carry an abuse of boundaries to a new level.

Before the night was over he took a moment to address his new “Love 4 One Another” foundation, which will help the needy while imploring everyone to leave a better person. This may be commonplace at a Bruce Springsteen outing, but is downright shocking coming from a man who has had his share of positive messages draped with flash and metaphor.

There was a moment during the particularly scathing “”Face Down”” in which he rapped vitriol against the cold, bottom-line of the music business, but by leading the audience inside his fight for creative freedom of expression, the fragments became one. He was free, at least that’’s what he kept telling us; developing brand new counter melodies and rhythms by coaching us through sing-a-longs and chants. It was then, allowed to peer into the mind of one of pop music’’s true geniuses, those lucky enough to attend could clearly see all the fragments and beings forever binding the music with the composer.

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