So here's how the whole thing starts: Prince appears in silhouette form behind the curtain, which is enough to send the place into a frenzy, right, but then he saunters along the edge of the stage, sits down at the piano with a huge bouquet of roses at his feet, and sings four words -- "I'm not a woman" (insert loud audience screams here) -- and we're off, not with the hit song "I Would Die 4 U" so much as an autobiographical journey that includes his mother, his father, JFK's assassination, the Batman theme song, barrelhouse piano rolls, wild stylistic runs up and down the keys, shout-outs to Steph Curry, the admonition that "No one nowhere no how should learn about love from two people fighting," the death of the American dream, "Stand" by Sly & the Family Stone, calls for justice in Flint, Michigan, and then somehow coming back around to "I Would Die 4 U."
No, this was no ordinary Prince concert.
Billed as "Prince: Piano & a Microphone," Prince's 7pm show at the Paramount Theatre lived up to its promise: the masterful artist running through a dream setlist of mostly hits at a piano, with a living-room feeling of intimacy that reached up even to the "cheap" seats (tickets cost $97–$273 before fees) in the nosebleeds of the art-deco theater. The stage was lit by an ongoing kaleidoscope projection -- a simple spotlight would have served the mood much better -- and clusters of candles on either side, parlor-style.
This casual feel meant that noticeably, Prince played no song in its entirety. He started "Take Me With U" three different times, in different ways, before settling on the right mood. He then morphed into "Little Red Corvette," with a splash of "Dirty Mind" in the middle, along with spoken commentary and improvised piano interludes.
But in Prince's hands, this medley approach didn't feel crass. Instead, it felt like music naturally pouring out if the man, as it always has, for an hour and 45 minutes. And while Prince's last visit to the Bay Area spotlighted his unsurpassed guitar skills, this time he surprised everyone by being an exceptional pianist, too: "Controversy" came across as a Pinetop Perkins accompaniment with beatboxing and falsetto, which turned into an Art Tatum treatment of "I Feel 4 U," leading into "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and "Pop Life."
Politics were not absent from the stage. As if to align himself with the night's #JusticeForFlint concert happening simultaneously in Michigan, Prince mentioned the city repeatedly; he also quoted Kendrick Lamar ("Yeah, we gon' be alright, but we gotta self-preserve"), and changed the lyrics of "I Feel 4 U" to reference spirituality instead of physical urges. At one point, he explained simply that "When someone says that their lives matter, they're trying to get your attention."
Musically, the set seemed so unpredictable that it became a fan's game to guess which song came next based on its opening notes. Prince name-checked Nancy Wilson in "Black Muse" one minute, and playfully admonished the audience for missing the falsetto backups on "Cream" the next. He played Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart" in the middle of "Thieves in the Temple," for crying out loud, and went back to "Thieves" while singing the chorus to "It" and laying on that impossibly high falsetto screech that only Prince possesses -- I've got to tell you what you mean to me! -- dazzling the crowd and ending on a moody, low piano note.
The four encores found Prince playing the showman, standing up at the piano and breaking into dance moves for "Kiss"; leading crowd singalongs for "Raspberry Beret"; drastically rearranging "Paisley Park" and propelling "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" with double-time handclaps.
But one song, the concert's high point, captured every awe-inspiring element of the night: "Nothing Compares 2 U." Instead of cutting it short, Prince opted to play nearly the entire song made famous by Sinéad O'Connor, with every ounce of emotion available in his voice and every elegant run up and down the piano keys that he had at his disposal. The usually hooting and cheering audience sat still in hypnotized silence. How could he possibly follow it up?
Of course. With "Purple Rain." Following such a whirlwind of seemingly effortless music, it arrived almost as an afterthought -- and it brought the house down.
I Would Die 4 U
Over the Rainbow
I Would Die 4 U (reprise)
Take Me With U
Little Red Corvette
I Feel 4 U
The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
The Ballad of Dorothy Parker
Diamonds & Pearls
The Beautiful Ones
Thieves in the Temple
Unchain My Heart
The Question of U
Starfish & Coffee
How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore
Nothing Compares 2 U
Venus de Milo (from Under the Cherry Moon)