Sheer entertainment: Prince and his court at Madison Square Garden

By Howard Mandel

Screaming electric blues guitar. Singing raspy as the street and pure as purported heaven. Sassy songs the self-adoring Royal and his pumped-up favorites enact, partying to celebrate the body salacious. Dance moves of sexy slink and pep-rally ebullience. Drums rumbling with rhythms to break up the earth. Twenty thousand people cheering with pleasure from their seats. How sweet it is to reclaim one’s roots!

I first heard Prince on my 30th birthday—30 years ago—during his Dirty Mind tour in Chicago’s Uptown Theatre. I thought his act, which involved him clad in a leopard-skin stretch onesie, rolling across the floor and bouncing off onstage flats while hugging his guitar like a teddy bear, was hugely derivative and a passing fad. I was right, but I was wrong.

PrinceBack then and there, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Son Seals and a raft of other long laborers could be heard almost any night doing the heavy lifting of perpetuating America’s under-valued black blues tradition. The memory of Jimi Hendrix was palpable, Howlin’ Wolf was dead only four years, Muddy Waters was in the throes of late-life fame, and Chuck Berry was always headlining somewhere.

By comparison to them, Prince seemed shallow. Rock guitar, then as now, meant blues guitar, but Prince was not an individualist among the guitar heroes. He was grandiose but scuzzy, greasy, grimy: dirty. He appealed to listeners who wanted flash from a show, not substance.

Three decades later, in his Welcome 2 America tour, Prince sustains his popularity and enriches his audience by rocking, rolling and righteously riling us up with performance extravaganzas that pinpoint, elevate and consecrate the humble blues as the point of origin and main source of American pop. He understands the eternal power of just a couple chords chucked with spunk and funk, and he triumphs with a vocal style—and amazing, effortless falsetto—that conflates gospel worship with devilish merriment. He’s honed and polished old, raw materials to sparkling sleekness, amplified them to levels that shake arenas and now embodies an unstated myth: that he is the inevitable, victorious embodiment of an enduring dynasty.

What would father of the delta blues Charlie Patton think to see the stances (guitar jutting out from crotch, swung behind back, tossed away) and hear the licks (Work those blue notes! Squeeze that tremolo!) that he practiced in the lowly taverns of share-cropper settlements in Mississippi 100 years ago, now raised to the heights of visibility and influence Prince commands? Assume Patton would have loved it, because Prince had the entirety of his all-ages, all-races audience in his purple palm.

After an intense warm-up set by ferociously hardworking Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, the pencil-thin 52-year-old in a gray tunic emblazoned with his own face was discovered by a single spotlight, posing coyly for fans’ photos while standing atop a grand piano. Then he hopped off to play, play, play. “Kiss,” “U Got The Look,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Let’s Work,” “Delirious,” “1999,” his signature ballad “Purple Rain,” which it’s possible to dislike but I find unforgettable… “I’ve got a lot of hits,” Prince announced early on, and proved it. He commanded sing-alongs, clap-alongs, waving-hands-in-the-air, got everyone to hold up their lighted cellphones and said he was about to ask us to toss our phones into the air. We would have.

He featured guest stars prominently, hailing alto saxophonist Maceo Parker, who took two biting solos, but the Artist never for a moment allowed anyone’s attention on him to lapse. Yes, he is vainglorious, stroking his hair (hint of gray at the temples?), unleashing precise steps, flaunting his taut bottom. Yes, he has remarkable energy, providing climax upon climax in a series of false endings and encores. Yes, he surrounds himself with pretty props like the twins in hot pants and roller-shoes and the girl he brought up from the VIP section to whom he sang “I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore.” She swooned. Who wouldn’t? Was he really focused on little her?

As for his “Welcome 2 America” theme: Prince mentioned President Obama once, along with the throwaway, “We’ve still got a long way to go regarding race relations in this country,” but his true interests seemed far from political. Asking for applause for the Dap-Kings, he complimented them: “Real music by real musicians.” That’s his standard, and it’s admirable. He really plays, sings, moves, writes catchy hooks and leads a super troupe.

He’s no pretender, though still a party boy. Would he be king? Why? Princes have more fun.