Prince at United Center Monday | Review
It’s a striking coincidence that the three biggest concert draws of 1985—Springsteen, Madonna and Prince—all made it back to Chicago the same month, but September’s run of superstar arena-packers serves as a fine excuse to compare the strengths that have allowed each act to last with powers largely undiminished. Springsteen, of course, is a force of nature; the guy is unstoppable. Madonna succeeds through sheer force of will. Prince, however, is the only real genius of the bunch, and as such is beholden to a fickle muse that’s delivered him countless hits but also steered him in some, shall we say, indulgent directions.
Both sides of Prince were on display at the United Center Monday, the first of his three-night stand in the city (which also includes three after-shows at the House of Blues), and in the end an inauspicious return to Chicago for his first shows since 2004. There were the timeless jams, songs such as “Pop Life” and “DMSR,” whose ingenious construction and indelible hooks have preserved them as well as their 54-year old but still nimble performer. There were lesser-known songs, too, such as the ballad “Old Friends 4 Sale” (which prompted one impatient cry of “what the fuck you playin’?”). And then there were the numerous detours and dead ends that took Prince everywhere from covers of Curtis Mayfield and Michael Jackson to a trip through a string of Prince-by-proxy hits in the Time’s “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” as well as Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life,” to crowd-pleasers like “Housequake,” “Cream” and “Nothing Compares 2 You” but little from either Prince’s early or later career.
Through all this, Prince relished his role as bandleader, rarely picking up his guitar and instead focusing on arranging and challenging his band (which on this night included an excessive 11-piece horn section, so big it took up its own separate satellite stage) to both keep up and shift on a dime as his whim decreed. Micromanaging may have taken up a lot of Prince’s attention this night, with his voice hardly at its formidable best (not helped by the inexcusably erratic sound) and the singer himself seemingly intent on getting the group to gel perfectly at the expense of the set. The horns in particular, given all the great songs they could have enhanced, were largely superfluous.
After a slow start, however, Prince hit a sweet spot, and for a good hour things flowed like the famous house parties writ large he has long been known for, culminating anticlimactically in a premature “Purple Rain” (featuring a lame sax solo instead of the usual guitar fireworks) a mere 90 minutes in. Earlier Prince had apologized for getting a late start (he arrived as part of the band procession hidden in a road case), so maybe that explained the show’s extended half-assed encore-cum-coda, which showcased a few more ensemble songs (like “Kiss”) but mostly featured Prince sitting at a piano and singing along to recordings of his songs, karaoke-style, while his band—suddenly mysteriously missing a couple of members—sat idle in the shadows, waiting for some sort of signal. “Too many hits!’ went Prince’s rallying cry throughout the night, and while playing bits of all of them emphasized the conundrum, pre-recorded snippets of “When Doves Cry” and “”I Would Die 4 You,” among others shoehorned in, were hardly satisfying substitutes for the real, live thing.