So, last night I went to Madison Square Garden and saw Prince for the fourth time. And once again, he did not disappoint. This shot is from the first time I saw him in 1986 at Wembley Arena in London. It was the beginning of my photographic career and I blagged a photo pass. Successfully.
I got in touch with Warner Music, who were still his label at that time and told them I was a photographer for the Sydney Morning Herald. They passed me on to their legendary publicist Barbara Charone, who very obviously did not believe me. She asked me to get the Sydney Morning Herald to fax confirmation (this was back before email existed) that they had commissioned me to shoot Prince live. As the day of the gig approached, I kept her at bay by making feeble excuses about time differences and a very busy Picture desk. To my amazement, when I called on the day of the gig and expressed my surprise that the Sydney Morning Herald had still not confirmed, she relented and I was informed a photo pass would be waiting for me at the venue.
I whooped and hollered my way around the squat I was sharing with five other people in Belsize Park for a good 30 minutes before I finally calmed down and made my way to the show. Grinning madly all the way. The Parade album had just come out and ‘Kiss’ was being played everywhere. The pictures I’ve posted here are from that show, because I didn’t try to get a photo pass for tonight’s show as I didn’t decide to go until 6pm.
The next time I saw Prince was in Melbourne with my then 7 year old daughter, Sharna, in April 1992. She was embarrassed by me dancing like a maniac throughout the show and kept trying to get me to sit down as we were surrounded by a bunch of straights who were not moving at all. It was an amazing show and it was unfortunate that she subsequently became so obsessed with the Diamonds and Pearls album that she managed to successfully put me off Prince for a couple of years. But that didn’t last. It couldn’t. His music is just too good.
In October 2003, a friend of mine (Nigel) who was managing Groove Terminator, the support act, very generously gave me for my birthday one of the two tickets he’d been given for the second show in Sydney. I found it weird the manager of the support act had only been given two tickets for the show up in the Gods (at the top of the back of 12,000 people), but his girlfriend and I danced through the show and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, even though (as I recall) he didn’t play many of his better songs and seemed to focus on jazz based jams. The first real highlight came for me at the first encore, when he sat down at the piano and played ‘Do Me Baby’ from Controversy. He then commented that he had “So many hits and so little time” with that cheeky grin that I first noticed on the Raspberry Beret video.
After his mini piano solo set the band came back out with Larry Graham, the legendary bass player from Sly & The Family Stone who invented the slap bass technique. Prince promptly strapped on a bass. He started jamming on bass with Rhonda Smith, his bass player and Larry Graham and they all came to the front of the stage where the three of them played off against one another on bass for 20 minutes whilst the band played a seriously dirty funk groove behind them. It was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life and when I bumped into my friend Justin afterwards we agreed we were both completely blown away by what we’d witnessed.
And so that brings me up to 2011 and the show last night at Madison Square Garden. A friend of mine mentioned last Friday that she’d managed to score some $20 tickets at the Box office for the Prince show on Monday. I’d missed his earlier shows in December and January and as I’ve been busy fighting my computer which seems to have corrupted a database holding 7,000 addresses, my head has been elsewhere and I didn’t realise he was doing another show.
Buried in the computer, I forgot about it again over the weekend and then noticed on Facebook yesterday that another friend of mine, Jo, posted a picture of Prince in her news feed. So I sent her a message asking if she was going to the show. She replied in the affirmative, we IM’d for a few minutes and she encouraged me to go check it out. So I cycled up to MSG and bought a $50 nosebleed ticket up in the Gods (at the top of the MSG) as the $20 tickets were all gone. I realized as I handed over the $ that since I became a professional photographer, Prince is the only musician I’ve paid to go and see as I’m generally working when I go to a show. And I’ve paid those $ more than once. And will probably do it again.
I made my way upstairs and decided to find a better seat in the Gods than the one I’d been given. So I sat in the front row half way around the arena, where I had a good clear view of the whole stage. And nobody was going to be sitting in front of me. I found myself next to Landa and Nicole, two cool New York girls who were deep Prince fans and knew every song, including the few more obscure ones that I wasn’t familiar with.
Cee-Lo (the vocalist from Gnarls Barkley and the Goodie Mob) was the support act and was playing as I sat down. Nobody seems to have noticed how much he sounds like Garnet Mimms. Probably because Garnet Mimms is an obscure 60’s R&B singer and Gnarls Barkley sold millions of records. Dressed in white with an all girl backing band in matching white suits, he ran through a selection of his hits and somewhat cheekily also played ‘When You Were Mine’ by Prince. Which got the greatest cheer of the night. As he didn’t play ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley, I wondered whether he’d done it before I arrived. I didn’t worry about it too much as I was there to see Prince, not Cee-Lo.
Prince has a customized stage in the shape of his love symbol, with the band positioned within the circle at one end. This leaves Prince and his three backing vocalists plenty of room to run around the rest of it. He rose up from the centre of the stage on a hydraulic lift wearing a gold spangled high collared jacket and matching pants. Elvis may have left the building, but he was back for this night with Prince. (I never normally post pictures on here by other photographers, but have posted this picture shot by Kevin Mazur/Wire Image for NPG Records to show how cool Prince was on the night).
After looking around the MSG, he gave John Blackwell on drums the nod and the band slammed into the stripped back funk of ‘Laydown’, the hidden track at the end of his most recent return to form, the album 20Ten, which he gave away last year through a variety of newspapers in Europe. It was an appropriate opening to the show with the lyrics “From the heart of Minnesota, Here comes the purple Yoda, Guaranteed to bring the dirty new sound…”
But it wasn’t a new sound. It was a sound that Prince copyrighted a long time ago with albums drenched in dirty funk like Controversy, 1999 and Sign Of The Times, which were all well represented throughout the night.
Dancing with a grin into ‘1999’, it was obvious he was in a good mood and looking to have some fun in NYC. And NYC was along for the ride in his ‘Little Red Corvette’, as 15,000 people double clapped in time on his command. Much dirtier and rockier than on the album, it was a stomping salute to chasing girls in classy cars.
On his impossibly high heels he twisted and turned with his arms outstretched drinking in the love before asking “Can I talk to the ladies?” Acquiescent squeals echoed around the huge auditorium as he sat at the piano and started ‘The Beautiful Ones’. Misty Copeland, a ballerina with the American Ballet Theater appeared like an apparition and Prince leapt on top of the piano to watch her pirouette around the Love symbol before jumping down and following her with his song, much like Bono was always reaching out for belly dancer Morleigh Steinberg on the ZooTV tour. I guess the difference is that Morleigh ended up marrying The Edge and Misty is only rumored to be dating Prince. For the moment. Who knows what the future might bring. Prince certainly seemed to be pouring his heart into the song as he fell to his knees in front of her and sang “If I told you baby, That I was in love with you, Oh baby, baby baby, If we got married, Would that be cool?”
With ‘Controversy’, the crowd ripped up the rule book dancing and chanting: “I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules”. Dirty funk was definitely on the menu as main course for the evening and in the midst of the madness on stage, Prince asked his shaven headed backing singer Shelby Johnson to find him some people to dance with. She made her way down into the Purple Members Club, the exclusive area right next to the stage which is separated from ordinary punters by plush red velvet ropes and found a fine looking woman who was happy to get up on stage and shake her booty as she danced ‘The Bump’ with Prince.
He booted her off stage for being too sexy and beckoned another girl to join him. It turned out to be reality show ‘star’ Kim Kardashian, who was paralyzed with fear and didn’t even move to the music, but stood there clapping as Prince danced around her. Obviously unimpressed, he told her to get off the stage and made the sarcastic comment “Welcome To America” without a backward glance at the wannabe star. Definitely a case of the Emperors New Clothes.
‘Purple Rain’ was a majestic tour de force. Halfway through he asked “Do you mind if I play my guitar” and didn’t wait for the crowds roaring response before ripping through solo after solo like he rarely does on record. He wandered the stage as Shelby waved a huge white flag with the 20Ten artwork on it and at the end he disappeared back down the hole that appeared in the center of the stage.
He reappeared a couple of minutes later wearing a huge gold shirt with massive frills and delighted everybody with the pure pop of ‘Raspberry Beret’, which slid smoothly into ‘Cream’ before landing with a twist in the proto funk of ’Cool’ by The Time. Prince actually wrote, played and produced that song (and accompanying album) in 1981 under the name ‘Jamie Starr’ and it featured a great call and response: “New York – Are you hot? No! Wanna know why? Coz you’re cool!”
‘Lets Work’ lived up to its name as Prince danced with bass played Ida Nielsen and went nuts on guitar with a much dirtier groove than that song has ever had on record.
A rocked out version of ‘U Got The Look’ wrapped the night at exactly one hour after the show had started. Prince held up his guitar and said ‘Thank you and goodnight” before disappearing into the bowels of his stage.
But it was only the first of his false endings. The band didn’t even leave the stage. Keyboard player Renato Neto started to pick out the beginning of ‘Nothing Compares To U’ and Prince reappeared to sing this song that was such a huge hit for Sinead O’Connor. He dedicated it to his former drummer Bobby Z, who recently had a heart attack and sang it as a duet with Shelby Johnson, who took a leaf out of Prince’s book by dropping to her knees and singing to him with a heart full of emotion and a voice full of soul.
As this 10 minute version of the song finished, he observed “I’m so bad I can’t even sleep with myself” and said “Goodnight” before disappearing once again as mobile phones all over the auditorium came to life and were swung in the air by eager hands, much the same way people used to use lighters when everybody still smoked.
The crowd was surprised to see Cee-Lo appear in his white suit 5 minutes later but pandemonium broke out when he started to sing the Gnarls Barkley megahit, ‘Crazy’. Prince returned looking like he’d taken a shower, wearing a red shirt with matching pants and swinging a towel around his head. Instead of singing, he appeared happy to take on the role of sideman, dueting with Cee-Lo on guitar and matching his vocal histrionics with rippling guitar runs. I was kind of disappointed as I’d love to hear Prince rip up that song with his voice.
‘Lets Go Crazy’ was the obvious song to follow and as Cee-Lo made his reluctant way from the stage, a mass of purple confetti dropped from the ceiling as the band pumped their lives into making the night even crazier. Prince threw his guitar in the air at the climax (which was caught by a roadie) as the band turned as one into the deep groove of ‘Delirious’. Elvis made a reappearance as Prince danced and swung his pelvis in an obvious homage to the King before sitting at the piano for a boogie driven jam that led into an acapella and handclap call and response with the audience “Oh no, lets go….Delirious”. Prince called for the lights to be turned low and asked everyone to show their mobile phones. Thousands of little lights shone across length of the Garden. So many iPhones and Blackberry’s, so little time.
A grungy guitar driven ‘Dreamer’ from the LotusFlow3r album ramped up the energy level even more with Questlove from The Roots laying down an incredible harmonica solo in the midst of the guitar mania.
An emotional Prince then made his way to the piano where he said: “I’ll be here all night” as he started ‘When Doves Cry’. When he got to the second line “Dig if u will the picture, of u and I engaged in a kiss”, the guitar line from ‘Kiss’ cut through the air and all of a sudden the entire place was on its feet and dancing like crazy. Elvis may have left the building, but in Prince’s world, Michael Jackson had appeared to take his place. Prince stood alone in the centre of the stage and it was hard to tell whether he was taking the piss or paying a homage to the late great MJ, but he completely covered Jackson’s trademark moves and finished up with his ass out and his thumb pointing towards that petite derriere.
As the band left the stage I thought about Jackson and wondered why he had to push himself so hard that he ultimately died in pursuit of his art. At 52, Prince was born in the same year as MJ (as was Madonna) and is still doing his thing without the need of anesthetics or pain killers. As far as we know. Like Bruce Springsteen, he plays a different show every night and Springsteen is also the only other artist of that generation who puts the same amount of unwavering commitment and energy and into his performance night after night. But Bruce doesn’t have the same moves.
The third encore started with ‘Sign Of The Times’ before jumping through ‘Alphabet St.’ onto the choppy guitar of the Sheila E song, ‘A Love Bizarre’. A couple of bars of ‘Hot Thing’ led into ‘Pop Life’ which slammed into a long version of ‘I Would Die 4 U’, which Prince sang to the audience and the audience gleefully sang right back.
The twenty or so people in the Purple Members Club were all back on stage at this point and the band picked up the groove of ‘All The Single Ladies’ by Beyonce. Prince looked shocked as he stood on his piano and watched one of the Purple Members dressed in a business suit dancing wildly with arms akimbo and legs going in all directions. The guy was happily making a spectacle of himself until Prince called out for “Security” and the band came to a halt. The guy looked sheepish until Prince laughed and launched into a revamped ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’. The synth line was the same but the song was drenched with 60’s r&b vocals and an incredible organ workout by second keyboardist Morris Hayes. The mad dancer was happy as he got to strut his stuff again and the rest of the Purple Members twitched self consciously.
The Purple Members were ushered off stage as Prince slowed down the pace with ‘Insatiable’ from ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ and laid back on top of the piano as the girls in the crowd screamed, wishing they could be lying there next to him. The supremely sexual ‘Scandalous’ slow groove came next. I was hoping Kim Basinger would show up to reprise her vocal contribution that appeared on the ‘Scandalous Sex Suite EP’, but it was not to be. Prince wandered the stage alone, holding a red rose and really let his voice his voice rip on the high notes.
The band started playing ‘Adore’ and Prince exclaimed “I can’t do that. It’s time for you to all go home”. But they didn’t. The crowd sang the entire first verse on their own before Prince finally joined in and built bridges between their hearts and his.
And that was finally it. Or so we thought.
Prince reappeared once more and said “We can’t leave, we have to take this higher” and the driving delight of ‘Mountains’ got everybody stomping again. He was right. He couldn’t leave the audience with a bunch of slow songs. He insisted the house lights be brought up so we could all see one another dancing. ‘Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)’ from The Jacksons ‘Destiny’ album took the dancing to another level and the night was finally rounded out by a brace of Sly & The Family Stone songs: ‘Everyday People’ and ‘I Wanna Take You Higher’.
Two hours and twenty minutes after he hit the stage, Prince finally abandoned us to our own devices. Fifteen thousand smiling faces wandered out into the cold winter rain of New York City, but nobody stopped smiling as there was sunshine in our souls.
I will definitely be back to see him again and would recommend you do the same. But next time I will organize myself in advance and go take pictures again. It’s been too long since I photographed him. That last image I posted doesn’t count as it was taken with my iPhone from the Gods. But at least it’s something to remind me of one of the greatest nights of music I’ve been privileged to witness in my life.
Full setlist: Laydown / Little Red Corvette / The Beautiful Ones / Controversy / Purple Rain / Raspberry Beret / Cream / Cool (The Time cover)/ Let’s Work / U Got the Look / Nothing Compares 2 U / Crazy (Gnarls Barkley cover with Cee Lo Green) / Let’s Go Crazy / Delirious / Dreamer /When Doves Cry (partial) / Kiss / Sign O’ The Times (partial) / Alphabet Street (partial) / A Love Bizarre (Sheila E. cover) / Pop Life (partial) / I Would Die 4 U / If I Was Your Girlfriend / Insatiable /Scandalous / Adore /Mountains / Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) (The Jacksons cover) / Everyday People (Sly & The Family Stone cover) / I Want To Take You Higher (Sly & The Family Stone cover)