Prince at United Center, Wednesday | Review
If there’s one thing Prince likes, it’s a good long tease.
He certainly gave one to Wednesday night’s United Center audience, when, after a dazzling 60 minutes onstage—he thanked the crowd, said goodnight and disappeared. The lights went on. Taped music began to play. Security announced that Prince & Co. had left the building.
The nearly full 20,000-seat arena was stumped. Prince has a reputation for pulling encore-related stunts (like making his fans wait for more than 30 minutes for one on Monday and eventually playing to a half-empty stadium), but he also surprised Chicago by basically skipping his scheduled House of Blues performance later that night. And although Wednesday had thus far been something to write home about (thanks in part to a stunning opening performance by Janelle Monáe) spending a mere hour with an artist whose catalog of hits could take up the better part of a day left something to be desired. Ticket prices ranging to $150 likely didn’t help.
But Prince did return, and made good on his earlier declaration that the night was “the best one” of his three-day United Center residency. Indeed, after befuddling crowds and critics with his hands-off approach on Monday, he seemed to have found the perfect blend of big-band sound, funky party song covers and his own pop classics. Case in point: Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” in a Prince falsetto, backed by an 11-piece horn section = better than MJ.
This followed a stretched-out rendition of “Little Red Corvette” that was so cathartic and sultry it put to question Prince’s ability to leave his former, oversexed persona in his pre-Jehovah’s Witness faith past (as he claims to have done).
Prince’s residency originated to benefit the nonpartisan charity Rebuild the Dream, which calls on communities to come together across class divisions. Prince touched upon his empathy for the cause through his song choices, such as the unifying “Everyday People” and party hit covers “to help provide a little relief for the working people of the city”. The finale, “Purple Rain” (which got a bit sensational at the end with eruptions of purple glitter) was framed by Prince’s plea to eschew choosing between “red and blue” and to “take care of one another.”
The moments of seriousness were part of a cohesive emotional expedition that ventured into romantic, poignant territory (Prince singing “Do Me, Baby” alone in the dark on the piano) peaking in triumphant swagger (the funky “Let’s Work” and the gleefully electric “U Got the Look”) and plateauing in pure fun. The set opened with a medley of early ’80s high-octane: “Controversy”, “Delirious”, “Let’s Go Crazy” and “1999.” Prince kept the excitement pumping by passing over his powerhouse backup singers for a duet with moonwalking opener Janelle Monáe for “Take Me With U”.
Perhaps as a response to critiques of Monday's show, Prince owned his guitar Wednesday night, indulging in zesty solos and flinging it aside to prance around the microphone. He showed off his stiletto-heeled footwork in choreographed numbers with his backup singers. He pursed his lips, combed his hair and shook his butt (which elicited more screams than most of his hits). And although he often turned his microphone to the crowd and let them take the lead on his most famous numbers, he let no one forget it: the night still belonged to him.
Despite decades of exposure, Prince remains mysterious public figure. It’s tempting to remember the sexually daring version of him from his early lusty hits and “Purple Rain.” Yet he’s become more serious since then, with his allegiance to his faith, personal tragedies, and public recording company battles under his belt. His recent mercurial performance snafus surely didn’t help lighten the public’s perception, but Wednesday’s brilliant show—with its dance-heavy glee and pervasively uplifting music—was a testament to Prince’s permanent talents and what seemed like, ultimately, a desire to please. Prince may not be the stubborn “kid” from Purple Rain anymore, but the champion who emerged on Wednesday proved a fitting substitute.