There's a lot of responsibility to go around for the wildly uneven Six 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 final of his three performances at different venues within the downtown entertainment complex. By the end of the night, Prince 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 Theater (capacity 7,100), moved to the intimate Conga Room (capacity 1,100, and which sounded much better overall than the two other joints), and closed at the mid-sized 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 robbed 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 Theater -- so there was no context for the Purple One's obvious grumpiness and ultimate tirade.
Looking at the big picture of the entire six hours of music, though, Prince's quiet end made sense, was a calm bookend to an evening that had begun at the Nokia Theater at 7:30 p.m. At this first, and biggest, of the shows, he kicked out the jams, "1999," did "Let's Go Crazy," a few bars of "The Quake," sampled Parliament, did a funky funky version of "Kiss," covered Kool & the Gang's "Hollywood Swinging," and invited a whole host of crowd members onstage for a raucous version of "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)." You know: Prince on fire. Despite a ridiculously long harmonica solo and a few too much audience baiting call/response, it was a good Prince show, and he did play through the sound issues.
After two hours of dancing and hit-playing, 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, and was Prince playing hard rock. Wielding a Fender Telecaster with the exact same tone as Jimi Hendrix during the Are You Experienced years, Prince tossed off many guitar solos while a powerful rhythm section of longtime friends bassist Sonny Thompson and drummer Michael Bland towed along heavily. The band did a really surprising version of Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up," covered Jimi Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic" and his own "When U Were Mine."
After a somewhat hurried burst of volume, it was onto to Club Nokia, which began at around midnight and was perhaps the most anticipated of the three, if only because many times gigs like these turn into all night Prince parties. (Given the choice and not having the luxury of getting three tickets, I'd have wagered my money on the Club gig, too.) So when he came out all grumpy and started playing treacly ballads, the crowd, pumped from the word-of-mouth thrills of the surprise-a-minute Theater show and the rock-heavy Conga show, rightly assumed that Prince would add a few more exclamation points.
In hindsight, though, it seems Prince designed the Club Nokia set as the proverbial post-coital cigarette after the climax of the Conga show. He went soft, with an electric stand-up bass player, a synthesizer player, and, yes, more harmonica. Prince played guitar solos, ranted against the sound system some more, left the stage, returned for the requisite encore. But by that point, Prince had lost the crowd.
In fact, what was most shocking about that Club show was the total lack of enthusiasm for Prince after he stopped playing. It wasn't the hoot and howl of the first show, or the enthusiasm of the second. Rather, at the end of the final notes, the applause sounded more like the polite patter for an opening band, not for one of America's most versatile, contrary and ambitious musicians.
But, hell, even at the Club Nokia show Prince could have handled it differently. He had big stacks of amps on the stage that were pushing more than enough power to feed the floor of Club Nokia without the aid of the venue's main system. He's Prince. He should have told the sound guy to turn off the mains, invited everyone onto the dancefloor and kicked out the jams. It would have been smaller, yes, but everyone roots for Prince. He could have raged at AEG with music, could have tossed protocol and disappointment out the window and delivered a party to the crowd. But he chose not to.
What's so baffling about the night is that even before the first show at the big Theater started, the system sounded like shit. Like, obviously bad. There was massive clipping at the high ends while the DJ warmed us up with Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks." As the sold-out crowd filed into the theater, painted all black with two massive video screens one either side of the stage, we were all ready to dance. But the sound was like headphones pushed beyond their capacity. And, honesly, none of the half dozen shows I've seen at the Nokia Theater, including Neil Young, Bjork and Kanye West, offered perfect sound.
Prince is right: The sound at both the Theater and the Club is 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 sub-standard sound, especially in the entertainment capital of the world.
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The first couple times I hit the Nokias, I let it go, figuring that L.A. Live employees were music fans, too, and no doubt heard what we did. Besides, like 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 Theater, sound men needed to tune the room, to understand the way the waves bounce off the walls and around the room, how they react to the hard plastic seats crammed so close together, etc. But it's been over a year, and last night it was as bad as ever. (In defense of AEG in this particular instance, rumor has it that these were Prince's sound people, and maybe even his system.)
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. 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 - or at least not feed back. It's all fine to complain about the sound, but this is stuff you do in the days leading up to the show, not during it.
It was apparent to everyone with ears even before that first gig started that the sound couldn't handle even a solid midrange, let alone the trebly high-end stuff. One stroll to the sweet spot of the Nokia by Prince while his band sound-checked could have at least prepared Prince for the possibility of poor sound. And then: if he was so worried about L.A. Live and sound, why didn't he book a solid, walkable triumvirate centered around the Fonda, the Palladium and Avalon, all a stroll away. (There's a very good reason, in fact, and it's why Congress should prevent LiveNation and Ticketmaster from merging.)
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 has 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 fanbase into the game. Because that's how you lose audience -- by promising more than you can deliver, or by seeming to be ambivalent to the plight of your fanbase, who want to be treated fairly, and not be taken for granted.