Confusion reigns over the 'Rainbow'

March 4, 2002



Always elusive and ever mysterious, Prince was considering doing a few interviews for his current tour behind last year's ambitious album, "The Rainbow Children"--but only by e-mail, and only after journalists saw the concert, because he wanted them to fully understand "the concept."

Well, I saw the concert Saturday night at the first of two sold-out shows at the Chicago Theatre. And though I lauded the album as one of the 10 best of 2001, I not only emerged from the show still clueless about the concept, but liking the new music a lot less.

Backed by an impressive six-piece band that included James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic veteran Maceo Parker on sax and John Blackwell on drums (another astounding player in Prince's lengthy tradition of incredible time-keepers), Prince played most of "The Rainbow Children," merging its jazz-fusion grooves with dollops of old-school funk, psychedelic rock and some B.B. King-style blues.

On disc, the album seems to be another in Prince's series of Utopian visions of a futuristic society free of racial prejudice and dedicated to spiritual transcendence through prayer and/or passionate lovemaking. But the stage show added some disturbing and arguably racist overtones to this alluring ideal.

At one point, Prince flashed a quote on three video screens that posited Abraham Lincoln as a defender of segregation. And while introducing "Family Name," a musing about African Americans being deprived of their ancestral roots, Prince singled out a white fan and gave him the new surname of "Lynch." (He did the same thing at the preceding show in Saginaw, Mich.)

Make no mistake: My problem is not with Prince voicing African-American rage. It's with him doing it in such a muddled, unclear fashion that fans of every color turned to one another several times during the show and asked, " What is he going on about?"

As for liking the album less, when taken on its own terms, "The Rainbow Children" works as a free-flowing jam that tours myriad styles of black music to stand as a trippy if confusing concept album a la the best of P-Funk. But His Purple Majesty did it a disservice in concert by splitting it up, interrupting "1+1+1 is 3" with a snippet of "Rollercoaster of Love," and following his duet with bassist Rhonda Smith on an aimless cover of Erykah Badu's "Didn't You Know" with his own classic "Take Me With U."

Such juxtapositions only reminded longtime fans how thoroughly his Highness has lost the plot. As impressive as the band's musicianship was (and Prince's guitar playing and various vocal styles never sounded better), their nebulous jamming didn't come close to matching the adrenaline rush of the best hooks from his own catalog, or the covers of heroes such as Joni Mitchell, Santana and the Stylistics.

The question remains: With so many brilliant, timeless hits to his credit, why does Prince waste time doing covers at all? Fans have grown used to this, as well as to him truncating songs such as "Raspberry Beret" and "Take Me With U" as part of unsatisfying medleys, as if he's only grudgingly trotting them out. But just because we've gotten used to this modus operandi doesn't mean we have to applaud it.

Prince offered two models for what could have been a great concert on Saturday. One would have been devoted entirely to "The Rainbow Children"--though if he took this route, it would have been nice if he really did explain his concept and engage in a dialogue with the audience instead of doing what was clearly carefully scripted shtick. (Never one to reveal anything too personal, the Artist made no mention of the fact that his mother died at age 68 only two weeks ago.)

The other model would have been the real greatest hits set that many fans have long been yearning for--one where songs were performed in their entirety and with no annoying intrusions from the likes of soft-jazzbo Najee (who ruined the first half of Prince's last show at the Riviera Theatre) or even Parker (who tended toward the jazz fusion end of his repertoire at the expense of the hard funk).

After nearly three hours at the Chicago Theatre, Prince had confirmed once again that he remains a galvanizing live performer. But sadly, he had also proved that he is a frustratingly confusing and inconsistent one as well.