Playing live might be the light at the end of the tunnel, the saving grace of the music industry, but too many acts tout the same set from one outdoor event to another, from one country to the next, with little consideration for context or locale. Not so Prince, who closed the 43rd Montreux Jazz Festival last Saturday with two stunning, genre-hopping, free-flowing shows tailored to the occasion.
In 2007, the Minneapolis wonder stopped over on the Swiss Riviera ahead of the 21 dates he played at the O2 in London, and enjoyed it so much he agreed to return for two exclusive shows announced by organiser Claude Nobs – the "funky Claude" mentioned in Deep Purple's epochal "Smoke on the Water" – when the festival started on 3 July. Tickets for the concerts held at the 3,900-capacity Auditorium Stravinski sold out within minutes, with fans travelling from all over mainland Europe and the UK.
Both shows were priceless tour-de-forces from a performer still at the top of his game 31 years on from his debut. Sporting a red suit, red and silver shoes, and playing a red Fender Stratocaster, Prince strolled on and delivered on the promise of a ballad-heavy first set with the openers "When I Lay My Hands On U" and "Little Red Corvette", emphasising the lyric "It was Saturday night, I guess that makes it alright" with a mock-coy roll of his Bambi eyes. "Somewhere Here On Earth" from Planet Earth, his 2007 album, proved another early highlight, the superstar blowing kisses while his soulful falsetto soared to Stylistics heights.
The aural foreplay of the first half contained many boasts – "When the Lights Go Down", "Willing and Able", "All That Love" – very much in the bedroom, boudoir mode which has often been Prince's default setting. But just as things threatened to get too steamy, keyboard-player Renato Neto added a dash of cool jazz and a dazzling piano solo to "In a Large Room with No Light". Despite the fact that Prince made the unreleased track available to listen to on www.montreuxjazz.com, only a few fans joined in, though his guitar solos, by turns fluid and torrid, drew applause from the jazz cognoscenti. Indeed, it was a joy to watch and listen to the near-telepathic interplay between Prince, Neto, bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer John Blackwell throughout. "You don't need a big band when you've got this band!" quipped His [red] Purpleness, though Morris Hayes, a veteran of the New Power Generation era, joined them to add lush keyboards to the yearning "The Beautiful Ones" – the singer imploring "Do you want him, or do you want me? 'Cos I want you" as he did in Purple Rain – and the unexpectedly tender "Nothing Compares 2 U", the Prince composition recorded by The Family and turned into a worldwide hit by Sinead O'Connor. "We've got too many hits, we'll be here all night," he said somewhat disingenuously at the end of the first set.
The second show, starting around midnight, actually featured more classics, including "When You Were Mine" from Dirty Mind, a rather apt "All The Critics Love U In Montreux" worked up in rehearsals the previous day, and a guitar-drenched "Purple Rain" as the crowd-pleasing climax, along with covers of "All Shook Up" and Jimi Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic". Unlike B B King, Prince didn't host one of Montreux's workshops. He didn't need to. He'd already given a masterclass.