Prince, Hop Farm Festival, Kent
Richard Cheese, Forum, London
His supernatural levels of genius are a challenge to my atheism. All other music is ruined for me
Sunday 10 July 2011
Pop is always about moments, and here's one.
At the climax of a set-closing "Baby I'm a Star", Prince lies sprawled atop a purple grand piano. He cocks one knee, sits up for a second, and smirks the smile of a man who knows he's just absolutely killed it. Then he hops down, slams his microphone stand to the floor, and the little archangel strides off into the shadows leaving 50,000 people awestruck.
Last time I reviewed Prince in 2007, at the opening show of his 21 Nights in London residency at the 02, I described it as "the single greatest concert I have seen in my entire life". I should never have offered up such a hostage to fortune, because Prince at Hop Farm 2011 edges ahead of even that dizzying height.
It starts in the strangest way, with the ageless, Dorian Gray-like 53-year-old leading his superb, predominantly female band through a new song, "We Live to Get Funky", which amounts to a live soundcheck as he shouts instructions ("B-flat chromatic ... A chromatic ..."), until someone hits a sinister sustained chord and he steps up to the mic. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today..."
The Kent countryside erupts. Not just because this heralds the start of "Let's Go Crazy", but because of what it tells us about Prince's mood. If you've seen a few Prince shows, and I've seen about 20, you know there's always a danger you'll just get his latest couple of albums plus patience-testing funk jams. Not tonight. For his first UK open-air show in 18 years, he's brought the classics: "Delirious", "1999", "Take Me with U", "Raspberry Beret", "Cream" and "If I Was Your Girlfriend" are among the highlights of a two-hour, 15-minute set. "Do you know how many hits we've got?" he grins. "If I play them all, we'll be here till next year", whereupon he chops out the intro to "Kiss" and the field goes crazy all over again.
He's in impish and imperious form, shimmying and pirouetting like a funkateer Nijinsky. He's even cracking jokes: "That isn't mine, that's Sinead O'Connor's", he deadpans after a staggering "Nothing Compares 2 U", receiving our pantomime boos before adding, "What? C'mon. That song bought me a house."
There's a touching nod to former rival Michael Jackson with a cover of "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough", and a couple of Sly & The Family Stone numbers with bassist Larry Graham.
Two songs stand out. "Little Red Corvette" is expanded into an Al Green soul epic, with an exquisite call-and-response section. But even that is outshone by what is, by general consent, the most emotionally intense rendition of "Purple Rain" he's given for years, that guitar solo ripping the sky apart as violet tinsel cascades from cannons. Once again, the man whose surely supernatural level of genius challenges my own atheism has delivered a show that will ruin all other music for me. Until he comes back.
On paper, Richard Cheese shouldn't work. The shtick of easy listening covers of alternative rock anthems has already been done to death. Nevertheless, the first time I heard Cheese, my mouth fell open in shock. "This one's for the ladies! Rape me, rape me my friend."
Vamping Vegas-style through one of Nirvana's bleakest moments and turning it into a jolly cha-cha-cha is par for the course with Cheese. As you may have heard, he recently performed at the royal wedding party, and opened with the Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk to Fuck". Tonight, the Californian crooner fronts a disappointingly basic line-up, but rolls out Rat Pack renditions of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long", "Radiohead's "Airbag" and a Beastie medley.
Pimping his Live at the Royal Wedding CD, Cheese offers a clue as to how on earth such an incongruous booking came about. "It was such an honour playing at Buckingham Palace," he twinkles. "It's like a dream. It's like it never even happened ..."
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