OAKLAND (CBS SF) – Is there anything Prince can’t pull off? Judging from his stunning solo piano performance at Oracle Arena Friday evening, there might not be. Delivering a spectacular, Stephen Curry-level tour de force, the diminutive R&B legend would have had to hit a court-length jump shot to top the dazzling musical pyrotechnics he put on display.
When Prince announced that Oakland would be the first stop of his Piano and a Microphone Tour a week and a half ago, Bay Area music fans lost their collective minds. The two February 28th concerts at the Paramount Theatre sold out in a flash, leaving thousands shut out of what was sure to be a mind-blowing experience. Based on the uniformly ecstatic reviews of the Sunday gigs, it was definitely worth skipping the Oscars.READ MORE: As COVID Delta Variant Infections Subside Experts Warn of Winter Surge
But many remained hopeful. Operating in that rarified air only Prince does, there was an expectation that he might settle in for several more nights at the gorgeous Art Deco venue. It wasn’t like he’d have any problem selling out a dozen more shows with next to no advance notice.
So it was something of a letdown when word got out that the intimate solo show would instead move to the cavernous Oracle Arena. Was there any way he’d be able connect with almost 20,000 fans at the Warriors home the way he had at a venue that was practically a tenth of the size?
Some dismissed the venue switch as a cash grab, but more likely it was a great way for avowed hoops fanatic Prince to score some killer courtside seats to see Curry and company take on the Oklahoma City Thunder the night before. After all, he’d reportedly been vocal in his praises of the team – and Steph in particular – with his between-song banter at the Paramount.
The evening at Oracle didn’t exactly have an auspicious beginning. Attendees had been told that doors would open at 7:30 p.m. with the show set to start at 9 p.m. sharp. Passing a security checkpoint, collecting tickets and getting into the venue was easy enough shortly before showtime, but once inside, we were met with preposterously packed crowds at the concourse level. Not just busy concession stands crowded, but complete gridlock at nearly every entrance to the arena seats.
As it turned out, no one was being allowed inside because of some unexplained technical issue. Prince is a notorious perfectionist who has strict rules when he’s performing – his no cell phones/photos/video policy is about as draconian as it gets – but having a production glitch force your fans to stand around waiting for over an hour to get to their pricey seats seemed a bit much.
So there was no shortage of grumpy and disgruntled patrons when folks were finally allowed to enter the actual arena about 20 minutes after the scheduled start. They were met with a light fog of dry ice smoke, video screens writ large with the stern message “NO CAMERAS NO CELLPHONES” and a group of stagehands frantically working tape measures and making last-minute adjustments to the stage at the center of the arena floor.
There were still a number of empty seats when the house lights dimmed moments later. A recorded orchestral overture swelled and the curtain rose moments later to reveal a purple piano on the rectangular stage with candles arrayed on two corners. Whatever impatience his fans might have felt from the earlier delays melted away at the sight of Prince’s afro bobbing at the edge of the crowd on the floor when he made his entrance. A roar filled “Roaracle” as he took the stage decked out in loose-fitting purple pajamas and a funky silver vest waving to his devoted disciples.
With the screens above the stage alternating between swirling psychedelic mosaic patterns and close-ups of Prince sitting at his custom purple keyboard – an acoustic piano tricked out with effects he adjusted throughout with a touchscreen controller built into the instrument – the musician eased into things with a simmer of slow jams. An opening verse from the more recent ballad “Wow” gave way to a brief instrumental interlude of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the jazzy crooner “Somewhere Here on Earth.”
Prince followed with a pair of new tracks from his latest album HITnRUN Phase Two. The poignant protest tune “Baltimore” made heartfelt reference to prayers for Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, while the pop funk of “Rocknroll Loveaffair” was transformed into a rollicking barrelhouse-piano singalong despite the fact that a majority of those present had likely never heard the tune before.
As he turned towards the classic material of his catalog, Prince’s dramatic reinterpretations got progressively wilder. “Little Red Corvette” found him injecting more jazz with torrential Bud Powell-style bebop runs before a gospel-tinged breakdown and a seamless segue into “Dirty Mind.” The uptempo Sign O’ the Times rocker “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” was recast even more dramatically as a burning, mid-tempo torch song. Another Sign O’ the Times gem, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” kept up the jazz quotient with Prince dancing at his piano as he veered into an fiery scatted vocal solo.READ MORE: Concord Restaurant, Bar Patrons Divided Over Vaccine Mandate
The more familiar tunes also amped up the artist’s interaction with the enthralled audience. The crowd lustily joined in to sing the chorus on “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star” — where he got a big laugh stopping at the line “Take my picture!” and waving the crowd off: “No, wait a minute! Put your cell phone away! Don’t take it!” He even conducted them as a choir on “Cream,” at a couple of points backing up to give the fans a second chance to performs their group vocal interjections more to his satisfaction.
The songs seemed to spill from Prince’s mind almost in a stream-of-conscious flight. He interwove a cover of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” with the bluesy b-side ballad “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” that showcased his still-immaculate falsetto and tossed in a snippet of the deep album cut “Starfish and Coffee” as a bridge between the Around the World in a Day hits “Raspberry Beret” and “Paisley Park.” The main set ended with the sweeping grandeur of “Sometimes It Snows in April” and the cathartic singalong “Purple Rain” before the funk workouts “Black Sweat” and “Kiss,” but Prince was far from finished.
Following a brief breather, he came back to the stage to wend through another round of balladry. “Diamonds and Pearls” dovetailed gorgeously into an intense reading of the Purple Rain track “The Beautiful Ones” that crescendoed with Prince kicking the piano bench away and getting on his knees to finish the song. Another enthusiastic mass singalong to the exquisite “Nothing Compares 2 You,” a hit made famous by Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, left the songwriter grinning and ready to bend the rules.
Punching the controls on the top of his piano, Prince kicked into a version of “When Doves Cry” that brought the full house to its feet with the original programmed drums beat and bassline for an ecstatic show-closing dance party. Except that wasn’t the end either. Though some headed for the exits, the standing ovations would bring two further encores. After his modern liberation anthem”Free Urself” incited a clapping, foot-stomping apex, Prince departed again only to be coaxed back to the stage one final time.
It was difficult to imagine another modern artist who could so easily command and enchant such a big crowd as Prince led yet joyful another audience participation jam session through “I Want To Be Your Lover.” Matching the catalog depth of such pop giants as Elton John or Billie Joel with the kind of inspired melodic invention arguably not seen in a piano-playing vocalist since Nina Simone, Prince just keeps raising the bar on his already legendary career with his current tour.
Wow>Somewhere Over the Rainbow (instrumental)>Somewhere Here on Earth
Little Red Corvette
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man
The Ballad of Dorothy Parker>Four (Madhouse instrumental)
I Would Die 4 U
Baby I’m a Star
Dear Mr. Man
Waiting in Vain (Bob Marley cover)>How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore
Starfish and Coffee
Sometimes It Snows in April
Diamonds and Pearls
The Beautiful Ones
A Place in Heaven (instrumental)
Venus de Milo
Condition of the Heart>Under the Cherry Moon
Nothing Compares 2 You
When Doves Cry (with full backing track)
Thieves in the Temple>It
I Wanna Be Your Lover
Do Me, Baby