There’s a lot of responsibility to go around for the wildly uneven Five Hours of Prince gig at L.A. Live on Saturday night. You can blame AEG, the owners of L.A. Live, which is what Prince did during the last of his three performances at different venues within the downtown entertainment complex. By the end of the night, he was so frustrated with the sound at Club Nokia that he actually called out by name AEG Live chief executive Randy Phillips, all but pinning responsibility for the entire debacle on him.
“I came to see Alicia Keys here, and it was the worst sound I’ve ever heard,” decried Prince after dealing with sound problems at each of the three venues. “If you fix the sound, I’ll be here every night — and I’ll do it for free.”
But then, Prince isn’t blameless, because in addition to the feedback and fuzz-laden fudge coming out of the speakers, the entire offering, which started at the Nokia Theatre (capacity 7,100), moved to the intimate Conga Room (capacity 1,100, and sounding much better than the two other joints), and closed at the midsized Club Nokia (capacity 2,300) — filled though it was with musical highlights and dazzling displays of funk — was, overall, a flawed idea poorly executed.
For example: Since each gig was a separate ticket and only a lucky minority saw all three shows, many at the last set of the night at Club Nokia ended up feeling disappointed by Prince’s chosen repertoire, which was heavy on the soft, quiet-storm stuff and featured nearly as many (synthesized) flute and bass solos as guitar solos. A friend who only got tickets for the late show whispered to me during the set, “I didn’t know I was paying $100 for a Kenny G concert.” This, despite an appearance by Chaka Khan (doing Rufus’ “Sweet Thing”). Also, the fans at that show had no idea what had gone on earlier with sound problems at the Theatre — so there was no context for the Purple One’s obvious grumpiness and ultimate tirade.
With the big picture of the entire five-plus hours of music in mind, though, Prince’s quiet end made sense, a bookend to an evening that had begun at the Nokia Theatre at 7:30 p.m. At this first and biggest of the shows, he kicked out the jams with “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and a few bars of “The Quake,” sampled Parliament, did a funky version of “Kiss,” covered Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging,” and invited a host of crowd members onstage for a raucous version of “Play That Funky Music (White Boy).” You know: Prince on fire.
After two hours of dancing and hits, the crowd filed out, and the lucky ones walked 100 yards through the overlit Vegas vibe of the L.A. Live courtyard and into the Conga Room for phase two. This was the smallest of the gigs, with Prince playing hard rock. Wielding a Fender Telecaster with the exact tone of Jimi Hendrix during the Are You Experienced years, Prince tossed off many solos while a powerful rhythm section towed along heavily. The band did a surprising version of Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up,” and covered Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic” and Prince’s own “When U Were Mine.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems Prince designed the Club Nokia set as the proverbial postcoital cigarette after the climax of the Conga show. He went soft, with an electric-standup-bass player, a keyboardist and, yes, more harmonica. The crowd, pumped from the word-of-mouth thrills of the surprise-a-minute Theatre show and the rock-heavy Conga show, assumed that Prince would add a few more exclamation points and eventually take it further. Instead, he ranted against the sound system again, left the stage, then returned for the requisite encore. But by that point, Prince had lost the crowd. (In fact, what was most shocking about the Club show was the total lack of enthusiasm from the crowd after he stopped playing.)
What’s so baffling about the night is that even before the first show started at the Nokia Theatre, the system sounded like shit. There was massive clipping at the high ends while the DJ warmed us up with Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks.” As people filed into the theater, we were all ready to dance. But the sound was like headphones pushed beyond their capacity. Honestly, none of the half-dozen shows I’ve seen at the Nokia Theatre, including Neil Young, Björk and Kanye West, offered perfect sound.
Prince is right: The acoustics at both the Theatre and the Club are pretty bad, and it’s not just me saying that. Most conversations I have about shows there ultimately end up with us wondering how such a huge commercial live-music investment could settle for such substandard sound, especially in the entertainment capital of the world.
The first couple times I attended the Nokia, I let it go, figuring that L.A. Live employees were music fans, too, and no doubt heard what we did. Besides, as with reviewing a new restaurant, it’s not fair to critique a place before you offer the creators the chance to finesse the system. In the case of the Nokia Theatre, sound people needed to tune the room, to understand the way the waves bounce off the walls and around the space, how they react to the hard plastic seats crammed so close together, and so on. But it’s been more than a year, and Saturday was as muffled as ever. (In defense of AEG in this particular instance, rumor has it that these were Prince’s sound people.)
But by decrying the Alicia Keys concert, Prince also implicated himself. If he had concerns about sound at L.A. Live before the concerts, he should have addressed them. That’s his job. He’d have certainly been given time and space to work out the kinks, to make sure it all sounded good. It’s fine to complain about the sound, but this is stuff you do in the days leading up to the show, not during it. One stroll to the sweet spot of the Nokia by Prince while his band sound-checked could have at least prepared him for the possibility of poor sound.
How were the shows? It’s Prince, and even a bad Prince show is better than a great mortal band’s efforts. But as a publicity stunt, it showed the Artist not as he wanted to be seen (as a god, touched by angels), but as a human musician who needs to spend time making sure that all the details are addressed before he invites his fan base into the game. Because that’s how you lose fans — by promising more than you can deliver, or by seeming to be ambivalent to their plight; they want to be treated fairly, and not be taken for granted.