Live Review: Prince at the Oracle Arena

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At this point in his 35-year career, Prince is perhaps justified in expecting us humanoids to happily accept anything handed down to us from Mount Paisley Park. But at the Oracle Arena in Oakland on Mon./21 — the first of three last-minute concerts planned for the Bay (Thursday’s show was announced Monday night, after more than 30,000 tickets were sold for the first two performances in less than 72 hours), the mood was a curious mixture of intense, polished skill tinged with unexpected insecurity: Prince, in full 52-years-young prodigy mode, broke from the action in one instance with a surprising, “Are y’all having fun?” And heated anticipation and adulation gave way to a brief outbreak of boos -- the audience pressed hard to get into the show, and was loathe to give up its ground after the first encore, hollering with displeasure when the house lights came up.

It was a mixed bag, albeit an entertaining and fascinating one, from an entertainer who can still pull out the stops, fingering his fretboard with one hand while slicking back his short crop with the other. A playful Prince alternately grinned at his band, placated the fans with hits, and happily jammed at length on one of his many Telecaster-style guitars, pacing himself all the while with breaks featuring guest Sheila E. and his backup vocalists. His impassioned take on “Cool,” the song he bestowed on the Time back in 1981, said it all: Prince was out to reestablish his own ageless brand of awesome, and have fun doing it. 

Opening the show was white zoot-suited Oakland native and psychedelic funk-rock pater familias Larry Graham, the bassist who broke ground and moved major booty with his slapping technique as part of Sly and the Family Stone. Fronting his band, Graham Central Station, Drake’s uncle got the audience primed with a sing-along to his 1980 slow-dance hit “One in a Million You,” before immediately ripping into a jaw-dropping bass demo that had him scraping his strings against a mic stand and probing them with his teeth -- an exhibition that would have had Jimi Hendrix pondering the possibilities of the low end. The kicker: a lengthy Sly and the Family Stone medley, including a moving “Family Affair,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” and “Dance to the Music,” with a finale that had Prince rising up from the bowels of the glyph-shaped stage, clad in fuzzy après-ski boots, to join Graham and crew for “Everyday People” and a palpably joyful “I Want to Take You Higher” that inspired everyone onstage -- and a good batch of the crowd -- to leap in unison.

The psych-funk-rock lineage clearly established, Prince remained the main Event-with-a-capital-E. The artist presently known as Prince is still an eerily, extraterrestrially-gifted performer, capable of shredding in hair-band-esque Eddie Van Halen mode, then tossing his leopard-pick-guarded guitar off the stage, and finally breaking into a fluid yet precisely controlled slew of popping, locking contortions in what looked to be flared satin PJs. A big-screen closeup of his posterior moving ever-so-minutely in time to the beat captured the detail with hilarious exactitude.

I had to laugh, marveling at the calculated, smooth perfection of the maestro’s moves, though Prince’s absolute, practiced fluency in so many modes of American music -- rock tear-throughs, blues jams, soul breakdowns, pop sing-alongs, R&B balladry, jazz interludes and conga workouts with Sheila E. by his side -- is seriously hard to question, and in keeping with the title of this tour, “Welcome 2 America.” This not-of-this-earth visitor has conquered the musical languages of the land, turning the tables on the natives.

Still, nothin’ compares 2 love, and Prince was out to please Monday -- sprinkling his set with hits like “Raspberry Beret,” “Controversy,” and “Kiss” and unleashing a violet confetti downpour with “Purple Rain” -- while seemingly just as eager to embrace the contributions of Carlos Santana, who was lent the Princely guitar; Bay native Sheila E., who sang “The Glamorous Life” to loud home-girl cheers; and backup vocalist Shelby Johnson, who memorably emoted through “Misty Blue,” as Prince playfully pulled Larry Graham up to enact a faux-romantic reunion.

The guest appearances may not have matched the celebrity drive-bys at his recent NYC dates -- those ranged from Alicia Keys and Questlove to Cornel West and Kim Kardashian (who got kicked off stage for less-than-stellar dancing) -- and new twirlers the Twinz weren’t in the house to add considerable sex appeal, but I, for one, left sated after a two-hour performance that included an hour-long encores. Prince’s displays of slink-worthy lewdness have been replaced by exhibitions of guitar hero virtuosity -- “I don’t know how you feel, but I’ve missed you something horrible,” the gold-satin-draped artist cooed to us over a hot gold guitar toward the end of the show -- but that made it no less a close encounter of the Princely kind.

PRINCE
With Larry Graham
Wed./23 and Thurs./24, 7:30 p.m., $71.50-$238
Oracle Arena
7000 Coliseum Way, Oakl.
www.livenation.com

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