Rock: Still prince of pomp performance

THE ARTIST

FORMERLY KNOWN AS PRINCE

WEMBLEY ARENA

WHEN PRINCE'S latest album, New Power Soul, appeared just three months after his quadruple CD package Crystal Ball, some claimed The Artist's increasingly prolific output exceeded market demand. Tickets for his live shows, however, remain a precious commodity. Tonight's gig - his first in Britain since March 1995 - sold out within 48 hours and prompted the scheduling of an extra show at Brixton Academy. It seems that the triple- whammy of The Artist's consummate showmanship, pop genius and living legend mystique will always put bums on seats.

The show was billed as a somewhat stripped-down affair, but although there was no giant, heart-shaped bed as on the Lovesexy tour, and no neon- lit ghetto as on the Sign o' the Times tour, this was anything but a Spartan production. Lasers carved virtual representations of The Artist's "squiggle" symbol high above the crowd, the set was book-ended by a pair of massive gold lions, and a flamboyant cast of characters paraded on and off the three-tiered stage in an array of outfits which would have made Village People blush. It was Prince himself, though - a Lilliputian live-wire dressed in a flouncy red number - who was the undoubted focal point of the extravaganza. As a set laced with greatest hits, souped-up P-Funk and stunning choreography unfolded, The Artist preened, pouted and leapt on and off his purple grand piano with the athleticism of a young Olga Korbut.

Earlier, both Chaka Khan and former Sly And The Family Stone bassist, Larry Graham, had played short support sets. Prince duetted with both. His own set, meanwhile, was cut short ("short" in The Artist's terms meaning just under two hours) by the Wembley Arena curfew. Amusingly, this became the subject of an improvised blues, with Prince explaining that he would have played all night if London didn't close so early. Even mid-performance he managed to get in a bit of writing.

One of the most fascinating moments came when some white roses thrown by a member of the audience pierced The Artist's spot-light and landed behind him. Miming astonishment, he turned around, and a spontaneous roar erupted as the crowd willed him to accept the gift. Grinning, he eventually picked up the posy and strutted to his piano to begin a short solo set. It was a gesture freighted with Las Vegas cornyness, but you sensed that both Prince and his audience enjoyed its irony.

Though some of the hits - "Raspberry Beret", "Little Red Corvette" - were flashed teasingly at the audience in medley format, The Artist was also happy to play more complete versions of trump cards. "Purple Rain" - surely the stadium anthem of the 80s - was a thing of camp and epic splendour, while "1999", coming soon to a millennium dome near you, proved that great pop is timeless.

Regardless of the somewhat patchy quality of The Artist's recent recorded output, this was a performance which inspired a whole thesaurus of superlatives. I'll go with "unrivalled".

The Artist is at Brixton Academy tonight. The show is sold out.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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