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He Put a Spell On Me 

Prince works magic at the Rio

Wednesday, May 2 2007
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As you may know, Prince just completed his first Vegas stand. I say first in the hope that this will become a habit for him. This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

It’s true, the conclusion of this several-month stand was announced abruptly, in that way Prince-related news is so often dispensed: without explanation, or indication of future plans. The Shadow Government of Prince obsessives are hoping he will either begin a tour, or duplicate his Vegas stand at a nightclub in another city. (Some believe it could even be Los Angeles.)

I’d be tickled to see him set up shop here. But for his sake, I hope he returns to Vegas. After witnessing his show there on April 21, I believe Vegas is as good for Prince as Prince is for Vegas: It’s bringing out his inner Sinatra — and his inner Prince. In fact, I’m hoping that by the time Prince is through, “Purple Rain” will be as much a Vegas anthem as “My Way” — and America will be better for it.

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His stand at the Rio was, I suspect, exactly what people came to Vegas for in the Rat Pack days. (I’ve recently been digging the Sinatra: Vegas box set — which spans 25 years of Sinatra’s Vegas club performances, all tipsy and masterful.) It’s a pretty simple formula, really. Take a casino nightclub — in Prince’s case, an old-fashioned circular ballroom (curiously christened “3121” by Prince — also the name of his last album). Add a hard-working band and a perfectionist superstar who’s got nothing to prove, but wants to anyway. That’s about it. This is not a theatrical performance with giraffes and strippers. This is, essentially, a club gig. (Yay, right?)

The show started a little after midnight, with a fairly amazing set by an a cappella group called Mosaic, who re-create early hip-hop — complete with “Apache” and “More Bounce to the Ounce” samples — using nothing but their mouths.

And then, just like that, Prince appeared, in a white suit, with a badass orange guitar that sounded like Satan, and a large band, heavy on the brass — including Maceo Parker on sax, those twin dancers and two keyboardists. (I don’t know if it was meant to blend with the hotel’s Carnival theme, but the band had a distinct New Orleans vibe; they even played “Down by the Riverside” at one point while Prince was offstage changing shirts. I took this as Prince’s version of an anti-war statement.)

Despite his claims of clean living, I think Prince enjoys the fact that people come to Sin City to get very, very drunk, and to smooch. Announcement: That masturbation action at the Super Bowl was no more an accident than Janet’s bra. Jehovah’s favorite Witness has gotten back to his sexy/profane roots. (Double yay, right?)

He pretty much set the tone for the night with “Satisfied,” a flirty, sexual gospel-type joint, featuring much vamping on the needs of a lady — and his proclaimed understanding of those needs. But this time, the vibe was different. Somehow, Prince adopted the role of a romantic cheerleader for the lovers in the audience — almost a sort of musical Dr. Phil — without playing the sexual hero himself. I have never seen anything like that from him live, and I wish I could explain it more specifically. It was something subtle, and very different. I liked it. It made him more human — and, at the same time, less mortal. He was casting a spell, sorcererlike.

“Satisfied,” from 3121, was one example of a newer song that worked ?well in a scenario where you mainly want to hear the old stuff. But it’s hard to escape the fact that as bored as Prince may be of his old material, it really is his best stuff — and fans paying hundreds of dollars deserve to hear it. A lot of it.

He did play “Kiss,” “Purple Rain,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Cream,” “U Got the Look,” and even Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music.” (In “Kiss,” he changed Dynasty to Desperate Housewives. Cheeky monkey.) “Girls and Boys,” an album cut from Parade, was a pleasant surprise. But to be honest, I could have used more of his back catalog — and not necessarily hits, even. Sometimes, I think Prince doubts whether people really listened to his albums, which is a shame — he’s a true album artist in the tradition of the Beatles, and to a kid like me who bought Purple Rain on vinyl, it’s just as thrilling to hear an album track or B-side as a hit. (I would have killed to hear “The Beautiful Ones.” Killed.) I guess what I’m saying is, I wish Prince had more confidence in his fans — and, weirdly, in his own material.

I also believe Prince is an incredibly underrated lyricist, and this environment didn’t exactly spotlight that aspect of his music. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” — which is all about the words and the claustrophobic arrangement — declined to unfurl itself in all its wild majesty. I’m sorry, but some Prince songs are just too special, too delicate, too alien, to be played by a brass band. And that’s also a shame, because that’s one thing Sinatra totally understood about Vegas: The intimacy of a setting like this begs for storytelling. And Prince is a master storyteller.

He didn’t even sit down at a piano once!

Then again, that’s the trouble with Vegas: When you’re doing that many shows, week after week, it’s always going to be a little bit different, and no single show is ever going to be totally satisfying to every fan. (I gather he performed a piano medley the night before I saw him.) The payback is that when an artist is performing week in, week out, you get this bizarre combination of casual off-the-cuffery and moments of real perfection and even transcendence. So the show I saw wasn’t a piano show. It was a guitar show. And since Prince is the greatest living guitarist, that was all right. His solos on this dangerous orange beast of his were metal as hell, plunked down in the middle of funk arrangements like some party crasher — sinuous and threatening and then poetic, minimal, loving. These days, Prince expresses his fierce love and respect for humanity through his guitar. You saw it on the Super Bowl. He’s an arrogant bastard, but he does have a lot of love to give.

So if Vegas didn’t already exist, Prince would have to build it as an almost ideal habitat for himself. He’s really not a road warrior; he’s actually a homebody. (It’s all over his lyrics too. Sometimes he’s fantasizing about a gothic, mansion-based lifestyle; other times, he longs for a cozy love nest: Would you let me wash your hair? Could I make you breakfast sometime? Or then could we just hang out, I mean, could we go to a movie and cry together? . . . Prince is all about houses, rooms, beds, bathtubs; courtyards and backyards; violets and daisies. He’s even got a newer song about sleeping on the couch.)

He’s also one of the greatest live performers of our time. That can’t be an easy paradox to carry around every day of your life. In Vegas, a guy like him can have it both ways. In Vegas, he can let the road come to him.

It’s kind of funny looking back now on his “symbol” period, that troubled time in the late ’90s when he was more or less hibernating in Chanhassen, Minnesota (a Minneapolis suburb as famous among locals for its dinner theater as for the Paisley Park complex). At that time, he was very into holding those semisecret, late-night gigs for anyone who made the hike out. (Classic Prince, right? Totally reclusive, yet close enough to touch.) He served juice and chips, as I recall. In my very limited experience, these shows were a crapshoot: Some nights were kinda boring, and some nights were like something suspended outside the plane of real life — true magic, true warmth from another sun. I look back on that now and see that he was, in a way, trying to do Vegas back then, in Chanhassen.

The trouble with those gigs was that sometimes the fans were a little blasé about the whole thing — as if Prince had made himself too available, weirdly, and people kind of took him for granted. If there’s anything I could say to America about Prince, it would be this: Don’t take this one for granted. Grab him while you can, because you won’t see another one like him.

It’s on a different scale, but I wonder if a similar challenge might exist in Vegas. Granted, in Vegas, if nowhere else in the world, an outsize talent and ego such as Prince’s seems quite natural — almost human-scale, even, given such outlandish surroundings. Then again, I’d guess a creature of such talent and ego might not want to blend into his environment too well. I mean, if I were Prince, I would quickly grow tired of competing with French Canadian clowns for the bachelorette-party dollars (or even competing with Gwen Stefani, who happened to be playing Vegas the same night I saw him). After a month, I’d be like, “Fuck all y’all. I’m fucking Prince. I’m the only fucking show in town.”

If I were Prince, I’d be like, “I am fucking Elvis.”

And I would be right. And I would stay there, and I would make those clowns cry.

Reach the writer at ksullivan@laweekly.com

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