Death doesn't become him

His show begins with an epitaph: `Prince 1958-1993, RIP'. This star, he says, is now reborn. Maybe so, says Helen Birch, but he's several months premature
The gold lam wrap was ripped from the stage to reveal a golden capsule resembling an upturned egg fashioned by Gaudi. At the top, a chamber into which various people were hoisted via a gilded cage during the show. Below, a veil of red velvet curtains through which the artist formerly known as Prince slid, via a conveyor-belt, like a throbbing fuchsia penis onto the stage.

We had been warned that something like this would happen. Last year, the star stripped himself of his regal embellishments and was reborn as a hieroglyph. No longer a Prince yearning to step inside a woman's body, he had, he told us, been reborn as a pure sign: unpronounceable, unnameable, ungendered, and, judging by the last two albums, several months premature.

Saturday's show was the beginning of his first tour since his much-publicised row with his record company, Warner Bros, which has refused to release his new album, The Gold Experience. It was prefaced by a short video with a few out-takes from his greatest hits and the epitaph, "Prince 1958-1993, Rest in Peace".

This show, then, was to be our first glimpse of his life after death; Prince liberated from his role as slave, as the letters scrawled across his cheek and the "Free Music" T-shirts on sale outside exulted us to believe. But rather than bearing forth a blighted talent, the set, a visual symbol of his reincarnation, merely brought us a frustrated teenager.

His Fuchsianess (all references to purple fully expunged) thrashed and strutted and rapped his way angrily into the present, accompanied only by bass, drums and keyboards. No harmonious backing vocals, no heartrending horns and only one recognisable tune - "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World", sung in that looping, anguished falsetto that used to make women everywhere wish he really was our girlfriend. "Who wants to get in trouble with me tonight?" he asked, just like the old Prince. And we all did.

This time, though, he has dispensed with his in-your-face singing-and- drumming female entourage, and has only one girlfriend, a dancer, Mayte, who wriggled and wiggled and shook her half-naked butt at the audience, slowly whipping them into an arm-waving frenzy, so they minded less that this time there was to be nothing to sing along to.

Women used to make beautiful music with Prince; now they decorate the stage like so much aerobicised fluff. Less New Power Generation than power cut.

As Mayte danced vigorously for her supper, his Fuchsianess changed musical styles quicker than the dainty spin of a Cuban heel. He gave us hip-hop and funk via James Brown and Parliament, R & B via Ike and Tina Turner and a few flashes of generic rock'n'roll. He lifted riffs expertly, of course, thrashing furiously on his symbol-shaped guitar, and tried to convince us that imitation (which we all knew he was good at anyway) could be as good as innovation (at which he was once crown Prince).

The audience did its best to honour his new status, greeting his cries of "What's my name?" with respectful silence and waving their hieroglyphs in the air, but as one blast of virtuosity crashed into the next, punctuated only by the word "Motherfucker" spat out at intervals like an adolescent curse, we could not help but notice the absence of a good tune.

Death does not become Prince. This new incarnation is a pretender to his throne. Prince was the sexiest midget alive because he took old themes and styles apart and refashioned them. He could be pimp and prostitute, rude and innocent, gentle and dominant, and wrap it all perfectly in sexual ambivalence and a well-honed lyric. He had attitude and irony in every note and in every flick of his hips. Now he only has posturing. "Look at all the things I can do, see how clever I am," he seemed to say. A mature and sublime take on soul shattered into a few showy fragments.

Even the gimmicks were, for Prince, pretty crude. A devil, complete with horns and fork, swung out over the crowd selecting a few girls to come and frolic on the bed in the upper chamber, while the artist formerly known as Prince remained aloof on stage.

He gave us value for money, though. Several times towards the end of the two-hour show, he slid back behind the red plush curtains, only to slide out again, erect and ready for more pump-action. But even when a giant glitterball exploded and rained down on the crowd, it felt less like a celebration than a display of egotism. Some pop stars don't grow up, they just lose their sense of humour.