By Chaz Lipp
As part of his current LOL (Live Out Loud) tour, Prince and his new all-female rock band 3rd Eye Girl played four shows over two nights – April 26 and 27 – at The Joint (at the Hard Rock Hotel) in Las Vegas. One never knows what will be performed on this tour, with a fluid set list that changes from night to night. Let me say two things up front. The Vegas shows were too short, but the prices were incredibly reasonable when compared to the rest of this tour. Seventy-five minutes is not a good value for the $250-per-ticket price that the other locations are commanding. Max ticket price in Vegas was $95 for the floor, with balcony ranging from $95 down to $55.
The late shows, scheduled for 11:30 PM (Saturday night began about 15 minutes late), both started with the same series of four loud, heavy rock tunes. And I do mean loud and heavy. 3rd Eye Girl (which consists of Hannah Ford on drums, Ida Nielsen on bass, and Donna Grantis on guitar) helped Prince churn out his most straight-ahead rock since the mid-‘90s NPG (think The Undertaker). “Let’s Go Crazy” has been retooled as a monolithic stomper, “Endorphinmachine” (from 1995’s The Gold Experience) has been kicked up a bit in tempo (it was already fast), and “Screwdriver” (a new single) is reminiscent of “Peach.” No horns, no keys (except for when Prince ventured over to a mostly-obscured rig behind some amps), and no backing vocals. This was the artist as stripped-down as I’ve ever seen him in concert, consistently tearing into wild guitar solos.
The classic 1985 B-side “She’s Always in My Hair” was next up for both late shows, extended to spotlight each member of 3rd Eye Girl. This was another perfect song choice for this particular band and while casual fans may not have recognized it, the rest of us soaked up every second of this relative obscurity. From that point on, the late shows were significantly different. Well, with the main exception being the inclusion of the dreaded “sampler set.”
Once upon a time, in tours past, Prince would sit at the piano while the rest of the band took a breather offstage. He would tantalize the audience with snippets of songs, some longer than others, from various stages of his career. For the Musicology tour in ’04, he sat with an acoustic guitar instead. But recently he’s taken to playing prerecorded tracks, sometimes adding live vocals and sometimes leaving the tracks play as instrumentals. For an artist who constantly touts the “real music” his band plays, I sure would like to see this concept ditched in favor of entirely live playing. But the audience (particularly casual fans who want the big hits) seemed to eat it up with a spoon. More on that later.
Highlights from the second show Friday, April 26 included a terrific “Forever in My Life” (with the drum track straight off the album, unfortunately, but some funky-as-all-get-out bass playing by Prince). “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” was slowed down to a tortured, passionate ballad. The new instrumental “Plectrum Electrum” (title track of a forthcoming new album), a Led Zeppelin-ish jam, provided plenty of room for Prince and his musicians to display their chops. Another new tune, “FixUrLifeUp,” seemed to underwhelm the crowd but offered a surging rock groove that would’ve fit in perfectly on 1996’s Chaos and Disorder. A well-received solo piano reading of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” gave way to one of the biggest surprises of the set, a gorgeous version of “Do Me, Baby.” An abbreviated “Purple Rain” (one verse followed by an extended sing-along chorus) featured a casual vibe with Prince at the piano rather than guitar.
The less said about the main set-closing “sampler” the better. Suffice it to say “When Doves Cry” and “Pop Life” got the audience charged up, even if it was basically glorified karaoke. The band members contributed a little, but it still amounted to Prince DJ’ing his hits. Not a good way to end the set. Luckily the encore was another highlight of the night, with a rockabilly-vibe on 1981’s “Let’s Work” and a rocking take on “U Got the Look” to finish the night.
Highlights from the second show Saturday, April 27 included a longer version of “Purple Rain,” again on piano but this time featuring all the verses (exquisitely sung, I might add). A cover of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” got everyone dancing before the pile-driving, Hendrixian rock of “Dreamer” (from 2009’s LOtUSFLOW3R). My personal favorite from either show was a spine-tingling rendition of “Sometimes it Snows in April,” with 3rd Eye Girl providing subtle support. Of all the great songs Prince has written, this 1986 ballad is one of his finest. It was a tremendously effective counterpoint to all the driving rock.
The sampler set once again turned The Joint into one huge party, one that ended too soon. While I can’t emphasize my distaste for the sampler concept enough, it’s apparently quite favored by Prince. The Saturday late show’s sampler opened with a quite lengthy “Hot Thing,” boasting a notably intense vocal. “I Would Die 4 U” brought the house down before the main set abruptly closed with a bit of “Mr. Goodnight” (from 2007’s Planet Earth). The late start that night meant almost no pause before the encore, leading many in the audience unaware that the final three numbers weren’t part of the main set.
A spirited cover of The Cars’ “Let’s Go” (with backing vocals by Nielsen and Grantis, sharing Prince’s mic) perfectly demonstrated Prince’s interpretive skills. The old ‘60s chestnut “Crimson and Clover” was performed with the same arrangement as the LOtUSFLOW3R version, with bits “Wild Thing” (Hendrix-style) mixed in. The final encore was “Plectrum Electrum.” I think that an encore of two covers plus an unfamiliar instrumental confused many in the audience. It was a somewhat perplexing way to end the concert. I’ve never seen an audience demand an encore more persistently, all to no avail. Eventually, The Joint put a message on screen indicating that the show was over and it was time to go home (loud booing erupted from sections of the remaining crowd). Prince definitely left ‘em wanting more, but thankfully those of us in Vegas for those two nights didn’t pay as much as most folks have in other stops along the LOL tour.