Music Features

Prince: Live at Koko, London 16/2/14

In an illustrious career of pulling bizarre stunts, it could be fair to say that Prince’s activities over the past couple of weeks have already proven to be among his most successful. Perhaps a victim of his own superhumanly prolific work ethic – he’s never really been away long enough for us to learn how to miss him – even with a fairly rich and storied history of music that pretty much rips him off, it’s been a while since he captured the zeitgeist.

Now however, with a series of relatively low-key and unannounced gigs around the capital (and Manchester), backed by, or rather as part of, his latest group 3RDEYEGIRL (all caps and no spaces being his latest typographical wheeze, apparently), Prince seems to be receiving more attention than he’s had in decades, with everyone from newscasters to marketing ‘gurus’ stepping forward to offer their own perspective on just what his latest actions meant exactly. As if the decision by a veteran, hugely successful musician to have a bit of fun by playing some shows on the hoof was going to fundamentally challenge the way how live music is done.

Although for all the talk of how fascinating and mysterious this “Hit and Run Tour” is, in reality it’s actually quite an old-fashioned way of gig going; multiple shows at venues, including early and late performances, to satisfy demand, and expecting fans to be sufficiently devoted that word of mouth will spread, and queues will in turn form, rather than the more convenient/lazy/tout-friendly method of online ticketing. Given the Brits’ reputation for queuing, you’d think that we wouldn’t be going quite so crazy over the reintroduction of the practice to the act of gig-going in the way that we apparently have.

As my fear of being left out of a conversation just about outweighs my dislike of spontaneity and surprises (and Camden, where unfortunately the majority of these gigs have been held so far), I found myself hopping on a train unreasonably early last Sunday morning, prepared for a long, and quite possibly fruitless, day of waiting.

Arriving at Koko just after 2pm, the slightly irrational fear that nothing was going to happen at all was assuaged somewhat by the sight of the iconic symbol scrawled in black marker on the front of the venue, and by the alarmingly long trail of people that already stretched around and way past the venue. Rather than just the devotees who were willing to sleep out beforehand (although the large swathes of blankets, and purple clothing suggested that they had turned out in force) plenty more people (872 in fact) had had the same idea before me. 

Hanging around outside a venue at least four hours before anything was rumoured to happen on a February afternoon, and in the middle of a line that was increasing by the minute (by the early evening the trail of people had apparently snaked its way around several blocks, onto Camden high street, merged with at that of at least one bus stop, and back around on itself, to the great amusement of most passers-by, probably less so to the locals), turned out to be less of an ordeal than I thought. Among all the excited chatter was a fair amount of bonhomie and generosity, certainly more than that found at your average show.

Until about six, at least, when the mood noticeably darkened. Perhaps it was a result of the sun setting and the chill in the air becoming more pronounced, not helping the already numb feet that had come from standing for hours, or maybe it was because this was the moment that a brusque bouncer (as if there could be any other kind) made his way round the queue to announce that, unlike the bargain gigs that had taken place over the past week, tickets really were going to be the full, slightly eye-watering £70 this time. Quite why it took that long for anyone to decide on that price, or at least decide to announce it to us, is unclear, in keeping with the tour as a whole, there did seem to be a touch of the arbitrary about it.

Despite the grumblings that met the announcement however, nobody seemed put off. Given the wait a sense of grim determination had set in. Well that or we had all gone a bit delirious from cold; after all, the sight of roadies unloading boxes, even ones labeled “Prince”, isn’t normally met with wild enthusiasm and seen as an excellent photo opportunity.

After getting inside the venue things seemed to move in something of a rapidly-paced blur, possibly from a residual sense of shock from being parted from all that cash. More likely though it was because everything actually was pretty quick, certainly by the usual . Our eyes barely had time to adjust to the purple glow the venue had been bathed in before the ‘girls’ of 3RDEYEGIRL bounded on stage, requesting that we put our phones away with a cheery “friends can ask friends for favours, right?”. Quite whether we felt like friends after the previous few hours is another matter, still it was a largely successful gesture – people might have snuck an odd shot or two in at some point, but for the most part views were pleasingly phone free, which perhaps just goes to show the power of asking nicely (or maybe that we were all well aware of Prince’s rather intense dislike of/litigious reaction to unauthorised footage).

Not that such politeness was at all evident in their playing, which was both note perfect (I’m still not entirely convinced that it wasn’t a backing track, particularly during the truncated version of When Doves Cry that popped up towards the end of the show), and almost punishingly loud. To mark Prince’s latest era, his back catalogue has been given a slightly metal overhaul (I can’t think of where else the extended guitar solos would be greeted with such enthusiasm), giving it a real sense of guts, particularly in the main set closer, and evening’s highlight, Something in the Water, which sounded so much more wild, threatening and urgent (and longer, thanks to the slightly improvisational, yet incredible, screaming dervish of its coda) than the version on the 1999 album, which now seems almost unlistenably weak and tinny.

Despite the noise they made, however, right up until the moment the rest of 3RDEYEGIRL giddily skipped off at the end of the show, they might as well have been invisible (the same could be said Lianne La Havas who finally put in her much rumoured appearance and performed her track Lost and Found with the band). Such is the magnetic draw of Prince that it’s physically impossible to take your eyes off him at any moment, particularly, it must be said, with the miniature, immaculately kept afro that he’s currently sporting, which, in addition to being something of a bold fashion statement, serves to highlight the influence of Hendrix over his latest sound – the title track to forthcoming album PLECTRUMELECTRUM really does recall a slightly slower, bass heavier Voodoo Child.

The sense of being party to The Purple One’s whims for the evening extended to the set-list. It’s hard to tell what the night’s show was exactly, not quite a showcasing the new album type deal (ridiculous, yet ridiculously catchy latest single PRETZELBODYLOGIC was relegated to walk-on and off music), not quite a greatest hits set either - we did get more of the Purple Rain album than expected though, including a piano-led version of the title track that felt suitably euphoric, and a Raspberry Beret that was left mostly to the audience, almost as if the man himself couldn’t really be bothered with it. Really, with its mix of eras and the popular and more obscure, there was a sense of it being made up as it went along, in the best sense. Most likely it had all been ruthlessly planned, but still delivered with a sense of spontaneity; it certainly felt that our devotion as an audience had earned each us of the three, or four, or perhaps even five encores - it was hard to keep track in the excitement. 

There’s a reason why Prince has come to be seen as the very definition of a consummate showman and charismatic performer, his stage presence being an equal mix of obvious glee and studied playing to the crowd; decades of practice having ensured that he knows the optimum moment of when to cross the stage, or when to thrust his guitar in the audience’s faces, (although quite where he gets the energy to do it all for hours on end, two times a night is something of a mystery). To be slightly more sinister about it though, his warm generosity is streaked through with a touch of manipulation, such as in his (it must be said not entirely sincere) imploring for us to let the show end so “the members of the family still outside” could be let in. Still, it was a good half an hour of extra performing, and the crowd lairily bellowing the wordless refrain that had punctuated the closing take on Sign o' the Times to drown out any announcements telling us to clear the venue, before people started to move out, with a mix of begrudgement and elation.

Among all the slickness and audience manipulation, there was also a sense of something a bit less welcome in his act; a touch of datedness, noticeable in his dedicating a song to “all the sexy people”, his requesting that “the ladies” in the audience sing-along to another, the slightly excessive amount of saxophone (admittedly pretty much any amount of saxophone seems excessive to these ears), the repeated invocations of “The Funk” and even the late-set cover of Play That Funky Music. By rights, this sort of thing should come across as embarrassing, on a cringe-making level with his sort-of reputation for putting out records to play in the bedroom, something which the couple next to me were most likely guilty of, given that they spent a good hour and a half of the two hour set passionately writhing together, eyes shut and lips interlocked (there’s nothing like being rammed shoulder to shoulder with strangers to make you feel fundamentally alone). However, none of this served to diminish his coolness, presumably because of the strength of his material and his talent, or perhaps because there was something pleasing about his old-fashioned mannerisms (or maybe because nothing could top the peak point of ludicrousness that happened sometime around when he started signing his name with a squiggle). 

To add my contribution to the seemingly interminable analysis that the Hit and Run Tour has already met with, not to mention the resulting backlashes and counter-backlashes, what did I gain from the experience? 

Primarily the feeling, as I ambled back down Camden High Street, that, even though I’d been one of hundreds, I’d been let in on something unique and really quite special. Although I did also learn that, even if I didn’t see much of them, 3RDEYEGIRL are a delightful bunch, who might well match up to the best and/or most fondly remembered members of Prince’s various backing bands over the years. And that apparently efforts taken to stamp out the worst problems of gig-going today – namely widespread touting, interminable faffing about and views blocked by held aloft mobiles – can be surprisingly effective, even if you can’t get rid of all of them completely.

My bank account might still be suffering, as am I thanks to the cold I came down with the day after (I can only assume that the gig goers of yesteryear were a hardier bunch), but I got to see motherfucking Prince, and not just on a bank of screens at the other end of a vast aircraft-hanger like arena but actually in the (surprisingly ageless) flesh, so there is that. I do regret not taking earplugs though, and some thicker socks.

Of course this tour isn’t going to change live music as we know it, but one would hope that the scores of young(er) performers who have caught him recently have been taking some notes - not just on the logistics (it’s quite sad just how happy I was to find that, having been in the earlier show, I could catch my train back out of the city at a relatively reasonable time) but on the stagecraft. Given that Prince long ago earned the right to do whatever he wanted, his deciding that what he actually wants to do is keep playing for us, is a wonderful thing in itself. That he should do so with enough energy and enthusiasm to put pretty much every other musician currently working to shame is a cause for outright celebration.