Prince approached the piano, a purple baby grand. He landed a single chord, resonant and bassy. He stood. He walked away.
As we could have guessed, Prince’s first-ever (first ever?) solo show last night at Paisley Park, his home compound in suburban Minnesota, was no simple, straightforward affair. The 57-year-old funk-pop wizard approached the performance as a challenge, an opportunity to prove that he could deliver a full Prince show without much of anything we expect from a full Prince show: No powerhouse band, no impossibly lithe dancing, no masterful guitar fireworks. Just, as the show’s official title put it, “Piano & a Microphone.” And a lot of Prince. Maybe more Prince than he’s ever shared before.
Prince framed the evening as an autobiographical struggle, the story of how he mastered the piano and emerged from the shadow of his father, a jazz pianist. The set moved chronologically (with a few exceptions) through the first decade of Prince’s career, including at least one song from each of his first 10 albums. Familiar melodies splintered into virtuosic cascades for a dreamlike effect, as though Prince was remembering the birth of his career in real time.
The night began with some introductory psychodrama. Elegantly casual in his mauve pajamas, that enormous afro dominating his slim frame, Prince took a stage decorated sparsely with candles, befogged by a smoke machine, his personal glyph looming from behind, illuminated by kaleidoscopic patterns. His voice was doused in heavy echo as he expressed the dreams and doubts of a child who sneaks down without permission to play his father’s piano. “I can’t play piano like my dad. How does dad do that?” he wondered, while attempting improvisations that, at one point, suggested Thelonious Monk teaching himself the theme to Batman.
Then it got sexy. Prince’s fingers were everywhere during “Baby,” a ballad from his 1978 debut For You that served as foreplay to the full-body workouts “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Dirty Mind” before the ecstatic squeals of “Do Me, Baby” provided the climax. Multiple climaxes, even.
Prince moved between songs fluidly. He introduced the moving ballad “Free” by celebrating “the freedom to say no,” later interrupting the song to wipe a tear and briefly mourn David Bowie: “I only met him once. He was nice to me. He seemed like he was nice to everybody.” Before we knew it, he was in the middle of a gorgeous take on a longtime Prince favorite, Joni Mitchell‘s “A Case of You,” which transformed into a bluesy vamp that Prince used as a lesson in musicology. “The space between the notes — that’s the good part,” he said. “How long the space is — that’s how funky it is or how funky it ain’t.” And just like that, he was was moaning the spiritual lament “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
The intimate setting was ideal for falsetto-wrenched ballads like “Sometimes It Snows in April” and “The Breakdown,” one of a handful of newer songs inserted into the set. But Prince never forgot that the piano is a rhythm instrument. If the old-time boogie-woogie masters didn’t need drums to rock a party, well, neither did Prince. He remade “Paisley Park” as a bluesy, gutbucket romp, and his pumping left hand recalled Ray Charles, a debt he made clear when he ripped into the soul legend’s “Unchain My Heart,” a song he recalled playing with his father.
“I thought I would never be able to play like my dad,” he said. “And he never missed an opportunity to remind me of it.” But Prince’s playing belied his modesty. His florid right-hand runs had a little of the theatricality of Liberace in them, but with more tasteful jazz inflections as well. Paying tribute to his past collaborators Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, he credited Lisa with introducing him to the complex chording of jazzman Bill Evans then played the harpsichord part she wrote for “Raspberry Beret.” “That’s the whole song, right?”