Friday 28 April 2017

Followers arise and hail purple reign of pop's true Prince

The hugely gifted singer-songwriter is more than a superstar -- he is an event, writes Barry Egan

SOME day my prince will come. Well, he did last Wednesday afternoon in Paris, albeit two hours late. As it turned out, I was lucky.

There was a French TV crew who had waited three hours for a few pearls of Princely wisdom for the evening news from him. Their deadline was 5pm. Prince, who doesn't do TV schedules, decided he would talk at around 5.45pm. A motorbike taxi waited to take the ashen-faced presenter, complete with the words of wisdom, to the TV station across the City of Light when it was over.

Prince isn't a superstar. He's an event. Television stations wait for him. Traffic in Paris is held for him (85,000 people were waiting for him at the Stade de France after his tete-a-tete with petit moi.) Clearly, life moves differently for the eccentric pop polymath and Jehovah Witness.

I feel honoured to be in the presence of this living legend . . . the most prodigiously gifted -- whatever about unpunctual -- singer-songwriter of the last 30 years, all five foot nothing of him. The god of small things has blended infectious dancefloor funk and astral pop music with a bit of social commentary and God to give the world dozens of unforgettable hits such as 1999 and Kiss, Raspberry Beret and Purple Rain, Little Red Corvette and Cream.

I tell him that there is huge expectation and excitement ahead of his show at Malahide Castle in Ireland on July 30. "I can't wait to play Dublin. It's gonna be an incredible show," he says with no little excitement at his long awaited arrival, courtesy of that most clued-in of promoters, John Reynolds. "It is going to be a show of real music by real musicians," Prince adds.

I ask him if he feels there is much real music by contemporary artists. Prince looks at me like I have two heads. He has little or no interest in contemporary music.

"A lot of it sounds phoned in. It is all machines. You can't jam with a machine. You can put your dirty clothes in a machine but you can't jam with it. Carlos Santana, who is a real cosmic guy, told me that, we are analogue creatures. We feel music as human beings. But a lot of the new stuff lacks feel."

What do you do when you want to hear music?

"I play."

There is a staccato rap to Prince's speech.

"I play a lot of guitar on this tour," he says of the tour which is called Welcome To America. "1999 is one of the great guitar riffs of all time."

Where did that come from?

"Some place."

Three days later I'm at Hop Farm -- a giant three-day music festival in Kent in rural southern England, headlined by none other than the self-same genius of soul, Prince. There are 45,000 people to see him. The sense of expectation in the crowd is enormous. Prince doesn't let them down.

"There's always a lovely incongruity to a big international star pitching up somewhere quaintly and quintessentially English. I couldn't help wondering how Prince had spent the afternoon before his headline performance at this cosy festival outside Tunbridge Wells," ponders the Daily Telegraph. "A cream tea and a potter around the Pantiles? A tour of some of the local oast houses?"

Visits to local oast houses notwithstanding, Prince arrives in a convoy on site at around 7pm. The man certainly does arrival and has bona fide star presence. Word soon filters through to the fans that Prince is in their midst. Suddenly, the atmosphere gets even headier. In fairness, they have a lot to look forward to (as do the 50,000 fans who will see Prince at Malahide Castle at the end of the month.)

For three decades, the maverick Mozart of Minneapolis has operated on a much higher plane than most, if not all, contemporary stars. After Michael Jackson, there was only Prince. Madonna was pushed aside. They seemed the only two worth talking about in the Eighties -- Jackson with Thriller, Prince with Purple Rain, Neverland for Jackson, Paisley Park for Prince. He is probably the most famous -- and in my opinion exciting -- solo performer in the world right now. And as a showman with incredible versatility, Prince has not only endured but become more successful through the years: he has just played 21 consecutive shows in Los Angeles and 10 in New York. He did a groundbreaking 21 sold-out nights at the 02 Arena in London in 2007.

Prince has a limo drive him 25 metres from his dressing room to the stage at Hop Farm. Prince doesn't do mud like ordinary mortals. The aforementioned John Reynolds, who is bringing Prince to Ireland, looks as excited as the rest of the crowd as the star takes to the massive stage at 9.15pm. He is straight into a shuddering 10-minute funk-jam that literally -- and I'm not exaggerating -- has 45,000 people dancing in a field. The ground shakes to bouffant-coiffured Prince doing heyday James Brown.

Shaking his famous skinny rump, the 53 year old goes straight into Let's Go Crazy, and the crowd duly obeys.

He is dancing and jumping and gyrating across the stage with his mostly all-girl band (Shelby Johnson, Liv Warfield, Andy Allo to name but three) like Rudolf Nureyev with a big smile on his face. He is wearing a diaphanous cream blouse and matching trousers that flap about in the summer breeze under Cuban heels. His eyes are gently lined with kohl. He winks at the crowd as he starts into Delirious. The sound is incredible. The mood similarly good. Everybody is in an up frame of mind.

It is hard not to be enraptured as Prince bumps 'n' grinds through Delirious and then into a version of 1999 that has the entire crowd in his thrall.

"You don't have to watch Big Brother to have an attitude," he sings on Kiss, changing the words from its Dynasty original. He soothes us with If I Was Your Girlfriend (as he plays it, I think of the famous story of Prince and his then-girlfriend, movie star Kim Bassinger, once upon a time, and a jar of honey on the mixing desk of his studio at Paisley Park in Minneapolis.)

Prince belts into a 10-minute long rendition of Controversy. "Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?" he asks rhetorically. "Some people wanna die so they can be free." He then draws the crowd into a mantra: "People call me rude, I wish we were all nude/I wish there was no black and white/I wish there were no rules."

Before playing the opening melody of Nothing Compares 2 U, His Purpleness makes reference to the recording by our own, very special Sinead O'Connor. "I bought me a house with that song," he adds before beginning, with everyone singing along to this veritable hymn. It is the closest we get to a religious experience without actually going to a church.

As Prince once said himself a few years ago when asked about his own relationship with The Man Upstairs: "God's way ain't gonna be easy. There's a hurricane the size of Texas out there. Can you imagine that coming over you? If you're on the side of the truth, that's scary, but you're not scared."

Prince certainly isn't scared of hard work: he played a two and a half-hour set of all his hits plus four -- count them: four! -- encores at Hop Farm last Sunday.

"It's a shame we have a curfew," Prince pooh-poohs at the end. He and his band are so good that when they play The Jackson's Don't Stop Til You Get Enough, it is better than the original. You could also say the same of the version Prince plays of Come Together, Everyday People, I Want To take You Higher, and Play That Funky Music. This is a man at the very top of his game. He may be the most extravagantly multi-talented performer in the history of pop, writes Neil McCormick on his blog afterwards. His show in Dublin in three weeks will prove this beyond any reasonable doubt.

Prince plays Malahide Castle on July 30. Tickets are still on sale.

Barry Egan's exclusive one-to-one interview with Prince will be published on July 24 in LIFE magazine.

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