Prince commands his fans' respect


June 27, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

"What's my name?" the star asked at one point during his three-hour performance Friday night, the first of five shows in the Chicago area.

"Prince!" roared the sold-out crowd at the Allstate Arena, which was bathed in purple spotlights for the occasion.

"Respect that!" the artist snapped.

That exchange pretty much sums up the point of Prince's current tour, his first jaunt through the nation's enormodomes in more than a decade.

At age 46, newly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and -- for the time being, at least -- once again signed to a major label for his "Musicology" album (copies of which were given to everyone who attended the show), this dedicated contrarian has decided that it's time to reclaim his rightful place as a pop icon after years of playing for his faithful cult following.

Hard-core fans have certainly seen better (because they were more intimate and less predictable) Prince shows in recent years. The Chicago Theatre in 2002, the Riviera Theatre in 2000, and the Aragon in 1998 all spring to mind.

The faithful may grouse about the PG-13 nature of the Allstate Arena show. (Recently converted as a Jehovah's Witness, Prince is skipping the hard-core sexual innuendo on this tour and cutting out all the cuss words.) And it was disconcerting to note that Friday's set list was almost exactly the same as it has been for every night of the tour, compared with the smaller-venue gigs of the last few years, where he has always mixed things up.

But all of this is quibbling: Prince was giving people what they want -- the hits -- after generally avoiding that for quite some time. And he was doing it in fine form, with one of the best bands of his career, notably including powerhouse drummer John Blackwell, incredibly funky bassist Rhonda Smith, deft keyboardist Renato Neto and the great James Brown veteran Maceo Parker on sax.

The set could have done with a lot more Maceo and a lot less Candy Dulfer, whose sax playing was superfluous. (She seemed to be around mainly to serve as eye candy.) But we've come to expect one useless woodwind player on each Prince tour, and at least she wasn't Najee.

The show opened strong with the title track of "Musicology," which found Prince throwing down the gauntlet by declaring his intention to "keep the party movin' ... kick the old-school joint." That he did, by following in rapid succession with the classics "Let's Go Crazy," "I Would Die 4 U," "When Doves Cry" and "Baby I'm A Star."

Other highlights included a dynamic version of "Shhh!" and a hard-grooving "DMSR" that, despite the cleaned-up lyrics, still didn't entirely purge the "sex" part of the "dance, music, sex, romance" groove.

Throughout the night, Prince played more lead guitar than he has in years, clearly enjoying the vibe of being a rock star playing an arena in the round.

But the best part of the long and generous set was arguably the acoustic interlude in the middle of the evening, when he rose on a revolving stool in the center of the stage alone with a purple acoustic guitar to perform some of his best-known songs.

Prince smiled, joked with the crowd, asked for the house lights to be turned all the way up and let the fans finish the choruses of tunes such as "Little Red Corvette," "Cream" and "Raspberry Beret." And these songs never sounded better.

It was just one man and one guitar, but he held the crowd in his grasp. In fact, the only other performer I've ever seen do that so effectively was Sir Paul McCartney.

That's star power. And Prince is right: You've got to respect that.