Rock: The artist still known as a genius

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The Independent Culture
Tell someone you've been to see the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, and their first question is: did he play the hits (ie, the songs he wrote when he was Still Known As Prince)? The answer is that he played far, far more of them than anyone predicted. The last time he visited Wembley Arena, three years ago, his funk jams lasted several days each, and while he did include one or two songs of the non-funky variety, they were all unreleased and unknown. It was not a singalong evening.

His latest album, Newpower Soul (RCA), warned us that we were in for more of the same. There are so many squeaky, weightless Funkadelic grooves on it that the 10th track, "(I Like) Funky Music", will hold the record for Most Obvious-Stating Prince Song, at least until he composes one called "(I Am) Short". Not that I'm in the Prince-has-lost-it camp. He hasn't lost it, he's just hidden it. If you count the soundtrack to Spike Lee's Girl 6, and three albums which are his in all but name - one by Mayte (Mrs Artist ...), and two attributed to his band, New Power Generation - the Artist has put 15 CDs on the market since 1994. Fifteen! None of these is exactly Sign O'the Times, but they all contain their diamonds and pearls. If he edited them down to the strongest three or four discs' worth, there'd be less talk of his puzzling deed poll and more talk of his genius.

On Wednesday, he was content to promote Newpower Soul by broadcasting it over the PA before the show, and concentrated instead on the songs that made his (former) name. If anything, he tried to squeeze in too many of them, chopping each down to one verse and/or chorus, and transforming the gig into a Prince-on-45 Megamix. "So, you want the oldies this time?" he must have been thinking. "Right. Take this! And this! And this!"

It was sacrilegious, but how can you hold it against the world's best pop performer? As far as visuals were concerned, this was a low-key, low- budget show. Yes, there were lasers, confetti bombs, Perspex speaker- stacks, and statues of Chinese dragons, but next to 1995's theme-park scenery, this counts as back to basics. It meant that we could focus on the Artist himself, and he is a living special effect. Despite attacking his guitar and singing with a gutsiness that crushed Newpower Soul under its Cuban heel, he none the less kept moving all night, from the moment he strutted onstage in frilly red pyjamas (his purple ones were in the wash). "London, I just got a new piano," he announced, pointing at a violet grand with "Beautiful" painted around its side. "Can I play that thing?" Yes indeed, we replied, and we were correct. The Artist played that thing, pirhouetted on its lid, pretended to have sex with it and skipped on and off it so nimbly that I expected to spot wires on his back.

We weren't quite so unanimous in response to the question "Do you love God?" during the customary evangelical interlude, but the Artist was unfazed. "I guess you ain't worried about that accident on the way home," he smirked, demonstrating a quality which no one who has seen the Purple Rain sleeve photo would have believed he had: a self-mocking sense of humour. When an ad-libbed blues prompted some unrequested audience participation, he stopped and pouted: "Who asked you to clap?" He's long boasted about what he can do with his tongue. Tonight at any rate, he had it in his cheek.

And that's another myth quashed: that the Artist is a few strings short of a guitar. The evidence of his supposed madness is that he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and pencilled SLAVE on his cheek. But these were both tactics in his battle to escape his Warners contract. They hardly compare with - oh, I don't know - bleaching your face and sleeping in an oxygen tent, for example. Given a choice between the man who doesn't want to be called Prince and the man who does want to be called the King of Pop, I know who I'd rather listen to.

Nicholas Barber's Edinburgh Festival Fringe comedy coverage has just won him the inaugural Allen Wright Award for young critics.