Comeback tour finds a fresh Prince

The 1980s superstar is on blistering form in London

The queue to get in the Roundhouse stretched around the block, and then around another block. Prince’s Hit and Run tour, in which the 1980s superstar turns up almost unannounced at a venue to play a blistering set with his backing band 3rdEyeGirl, continues to generate intense excitement.

It’s like Apollo materialising in an ancient Greek town before the gawping local populace to lay down some serious funk with his lyre and a crack troupe of musical nymphs. I half-expected to see a winged chariot outside the London venue and Dionysus trying to blag his way in on the guest list.

Amid the giddiness it is easy to overlook the fact that Prince’s most recent album, 2010’s 20Ten, was given away for free with a newspaper and panned as among his weakest. Obscured by the thrill of seeing one of pop’s greatest performers in an intimate, spontaneous setting, a more prosaic situation suggests itself. Prince is on the comeback trail after a flop – the latest in an extraordinary but erratic recording career.

His Roundhouse shows, two in one evening, were announced without warning the previous day. The later of the two gigs opened with the lights going up to reveal him with a guitar and pursed smile. A hum of feedback resolved into a meaty series of riffs. He and 3rdEyeGirl, an all-woman trio, were up and running with a hard-rock version of “Let’s Go Crazy”, closer in spirit to Led Zeppelin than the splashy 1984 original.

A heady sequence of back-catalogue classics followed – “Raspberry Beret”, “1999”, “Little Red Corvette”, “Kiss”, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, “Purple Rain” – punctuated by a showman’s cry of “How many hits did we play?” from Prince. Lithe in a psychedelic patterned print outfit, hair styled in an Afro, he resembled the descendant of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. But the speed and discipline with which he performed brought to mind a more driven virtuoso of black American pop, James Brown.

Guitar solos were dispatched with theatrical brilliance, a controlled form of abandon, Prince’s face going from ecstatic contortions to mischievous grins. His singing switched seamlessly between high and deeper tones, flipping viewpoint between seducer and seduced, woman and man. The only flaw came with the very occasional hint of vocal crumbliness, a corrosion one might expect from a 55-year-old playing his second show of the night, even one as preternaturally trim as Prince.

Supplemented occasionally by a keyboardist, 3rdEyeGirl laid down tight funk rhythms. Two of the trio have jazz training, evident in their fluent improvisations, Prince signalling with a bandleader’s nod a change in tempo or sudden ending. He was equally commanding with the audience, interspersing songs with shouts of “Sing it!”, as though engaging the 3,000 present in an enormous act of courtship – a process that reached its apogee with an immense “Purple Rain”, adorned with what can only be described as multiple climaxes. Had he ended on that note, the evening would have been sublime. But, characteristically, the set went, if not quite awry, then off-piste. In a jarring tonal shift, “Purple Rain” was followed with obscure blues jam “The Ride”, revised with ungallant lyrics about a “butterfaced” woman (“Everything looks good about her but her face”). Then came more flippant chauvinism with “Guitar”: “I love you baby but not like I love my guitar,” uttered over a basic rock rumble.

Promising tracks were debuted from a forthcoming album, Plectrum Electrum, including the title track, a funk-rock wig-out, and “FunkNRoll”, an old-school Funkadelic-style blast. A succession of encores ended with another flash of genius, a superb version of “What’s My Name” incorporating lyrics from another song, “The Sacrifice of Victor” – an enigmatic moment of self-revelation.

“Mama held up her baby for protection/From a man with a strap in his hand,” Prince sang, evoking the scenes of domestic violence in his semi-autobiographical 1984 film Purple Rain. His deceased father came to mind, a jazz musician with the stage name Prince Rogers. The pair had a complicated relationship, variously estranged and close. At the Roundhouse, Prince delivered the chorus of the composite song with feeling: “What’s my name?” The audience shouted back the answer: his name, not his father’s. Or was it both? Deeper currents than the desire for chart success impel Prince’s latest comeback.

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was named Arts Reviewer of the Year at this year’s London Press Club awards

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