MUSIC / Whatever happened to wossisname?: Giles Smith on Prince at the Birmingham NIA

'WHAT'S my name?' Prince kept asking during the first night of his European Tour in Birmingham. 'Prince,' we all shouted back, 'so shut up and get on with it.' It's been a tedious couple of months since Prince announced he was changing his name to a symbol, without so much as a hint on pronunciation. Odd to see the greatest pop performer of our times distracted by one of the daftest publicity stunts in history.

By contrast, the new show is stripped of gimmicks. We're down to one dancer (Mayte) and it's farewell to the old hydraulic bed. The rapping crew is out, the real horn section is back in the centre. Even the big symbol suspended over the stage, which on last year's tour throbbed and glowed and made like a spaceship, sits still this time and contents itself with winking occasionally.

Not that the show was entirely without grandstand moments. To the strains of 'My Name is Prince', the man they were calling 'Victor' arrived for work on a swing. It was rather larger and more ornately gilded than your standard playground model, and what's more, it seemed to have dropped out of the roof, about 50 yards down the arena, from where it started a slow overhead glide towards the stage. Supported by tasseled cushions, our hero was perched with his legs daintily crossed, wearing a bus conductor's hat with a curtain of pearls masking the face.

Which could have made you suspicious. Regular concert-goers are now inured to the notion of the stuntman, ever since that time last summer when it dawned on one, with a sinking heart, that the figure in the spacesuit with the jet pack, blasting off the stage into the Wembley night, was not actually Michael Jackson. But here, from the moment the swing tipped him on to the stage, you knew it had to be him. Only Prince can make Cuban heels move like that.

In the show's opening moments, he may well have found his most fluid form ever as a performing vocalist. If so, it was a shame, because we couldn't hear him. The drums were crisp, the bass boomed and the horn section blew cleanly - but all that came from Prince's microphone was the noise of someone speaking from under a pile of coats. At the beginning of a tour this might have been excusable for the first few minutes. But for eight whole numbers?

Not until 'The Cross' did the vocals start to cut across the drums, by which time we had written off 'Raspberry Beret' and 'Let's Go Crazy' and looked on in bafflement as Prince worked himself into a froth for the ballad 'The Beautiful Ones', slapping the stage and screwing his face up, with absolutely no audible effect. It was no small irony that in a show plotted to the last detail, nobody could find the volume control.

Prince is claiming, David Bowie- style, that this is the last time he will play the old stuff, and members of Controversy, the Prince fan club, have nominated their favourites for a final audition. Whoever was responsible for chosing 'Strollin' ' should perhaps have been made to get up on the stage and justify their selection to the hall. But otherwise the songlist dipped into all the right places: 'Kiss', 'Girls and Boys', a cruelly brief glimpse of 'Diamonds and Pearls', 'Purple Rain' replete with the traditional thunderous guitar solo, and 'Sign O the Times', which has to be one of the only songs recognisable within 0.3 seconds of a drum machine starting up.

For an encore, we got '1999', which had an arrogant swagger to it when it originally came out but with each subsequent tour has increased in pace and now sounds like the record played at 78 rpm. And then came a clutch of new songs, heavy on the guitars, a little like beefed-up out-takes from Purple Rain. 'Come' contained the line 'Maybe you should wrap your legs round my neck for a while', which suggested that the new direction will be using some of the old maps.

And so to the resolution of the name problem. 'It's not Victor,' he said. So what was it to be then? Arthur? Bob? Vince? No, none of these. 'If you're always with me, you don't have to call me.' Make that Dick, then - as in Clever.

(Photograph omitted)

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