“We’re taking it old school tonight.” This is an extremely pleasing sentiment to hear Prince express early in a set, for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that old school Prince songs remain pretty much without peer, when it comes to the loftiest heights achievable by pop music. Another reason is, well, suffice it to say the Purple One’s status as untouchable has shown signs of waning over time.
Last night at the IZOD Center in New Jersey, Prince kicked off his first tour in four years, titled “Welcome 2 America,” a series of five New York-area concerts with a show that tore, stomped, slapped, slashed, sashayed through his catalog. But ultimately Prince’s choice of material mattered less than the way it all meshed in the end.
It wasn’t a sure thing at the start. Opener Esperanza Spalding struck an impressively sassy and bad-ass pose early on, her giant Afro shaking as she scatted through strange pop songs behind her upright bass. Her mode was jazz, or something like it, though the bite of her style was eaten up by the unforgiving arena environs. Some of her band’s jamming ventured toward the kind of dreaded smooth-jazz treacle that Prince himself has succumbed to in recent years, and that spirit — so ripe for a sunset cruise with sickly sweet zinfandel — drifted evermore into another opening bit by Lalah Hathaway, an R&B singer whose slow, ballad-studded set can only be described as an ordeal.
So there was reason to be skeptical, or at least uncertain, as to which Prince would be the Prince behind this little series of shows dubbed “Welcome 2 America.”
Then the lights dimmed and, well, there was Prince!He opened with a recent song, “Laydown” (“from the heart of Minnesota, here comes the purple Yoda”). But it wasn’t long, just two songs later, before he was standing on his piano belting out “The Beautiful Ones” from Purple Rain.
The way his voice sounds when it falls from a falsetto and rips, laced with reverb and spacious in scope, is still overwhelming, and it only sounds better when his body starts to get involved. He gyrated in time with “When You Were Mine” and “Uptown” (both from 1980’s Dirty Mind), which set the tone for a long medley grounded in funk and heavy with hits.
Throughout it all, Prince pranced around with his singular mix of coyness and cool, playing with the aloof intensity of a virtuoso while flashing a smile that could make even the coldest of doubters melt. He blew a kiss to the crowd with what seemed like an extra hand that materialized during a guitar solo in “Cream.”
And he looked like he hasn’t aged a day in his three different outfits for the night: a red turtleneck getup, a sleeveless black smock, and a gold satin shirt that looked a little like the butchered one that Theo Huxtable wore in a storied old episode of The Cosby Show.
Parts of the show lagged, in particular a couple of drawn-out slow spells and especially a bizarrely out-of-place rendition of the Sarah McLachlan song “In the Arms of an Angel.” And the whole stated “Welcome 2 America” theme didn’t play out much beyond an early shout-out from Prince himself: “Welcome 2 America, where you can be fired from your job, get rehired, and get a $700 billion bonus.”
But all of that came to count as quibbling as Prince continued to heat up and stretch out toward the end. “Kick drum!” This is another pleasing sentiment to hear Prince express, especially when he’s just sat down at his purple piano with a devious look in his eye. That’s what started off an outro jam that swung through “Housequake” (from 1987’s Sign o’ the Times — No. 2 on SPIN’s 125 Best Albums list) and “Controversy” (from 1981’s Controversy), both of which hit with enough force and found enough good groove to make a big old sports arena feel like a small sweaty club for a few delirious minutes.
Maybe that was the “America” meant to be summoned for the night, though it felt more like an exotic outpost on whatever distant and mysterious planet Prince calls home.