Prince at the O2 Arena: The Great Funk & Soul Swindle, Part One.

It was an ill-starred evening from the off. A section of the southbound M1 was officially closed, with an accident to the north of it causing traffic to crawl for miles before coming to a complete standstill. Fortunately, or so it seemed, we could see the standstill kicking in just beyond the last-but-one junction before the closure, allowing us to leave the motorway in the nick of time.

Less fortunately, the crawl continued, bumper-to-bumper solid, all the way into St. Albans, and through it, and out the other side again. By the time we hit the unexpectedly and blissfully empty M25, we had less than an hour to get from Hertfordshire to the O2 Arena in North Greenwich, in time for the predicted show-time of 20:30. I was already mentally preparing myself for missing the first thirty minutes of Prince’s set. Not to worry, though; we also had tickets for the after-show, and so could expect many, many hours of music ahead of us. What was the odd half hour or so? A drop in the ocean.

At 20:25, we screeched into the O2 car park (advance cost: £22.30 including booking fee). By 20:45, we were in our seats, beers in hands. Given that our four-and-a-quarter hour journey had allowed us no time to stop for food, a liquid dinner (plus one banana each, smuggled through security by Dymbel) would have to suffice.

Three minutes later, the show began. Bless him for waiting for us. Our luck was changing. Smiles all round.

Just under two hours later, the band left the stage for the last time. During those two hours, Prince had been absent for the opening number, two lengthy instrumental interludes, two teasingly over-streched intervals between the two encores, and the first number of the first encore: a good 25 minutes, at the most conservative estimate.

Of the 20 songs performed, just 7 of Prince’s 37 UK Top Thirty hits were represented: Cream, U Got The Look, Peach, Kiss, Purple Rain, Let’s Go Crazy and Take Me With U, plus a spirited version of I Feel For You. Four other numbers were covers, with Prince performing on just one of them: a perfunctory slog through Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music, for which he forgot nearly all the words.

The sound quality in the O2 Arena was abysmal: booming, sludgy and echo-laden, with a general absence of top-end clarity. However, our seats gave us a good overall view of the stage, which bore the shape of that funny little squiggle from the “Artist Formerly Known As” years. Although billed as an “in the round” show, the main performance area was the extended catwalk formed by the squiggle’s downwards arrow, with additional curly runways running off to each side. However, for those of us who were seated at the top of the squiggle – a circular area, with the band seated in the middle – Prince’s face-forward appearances were limited, and frustratingly brief. About once every ten or fifteen minutes, he would quickly trot round the uppermost circumference, barely pausing to acknowledge us. No matter; we had an excellent view of the screen, and much better all-round vision than the people down on the main floor. A shame, then, that the spot-lighting was so poorly arranged, with Prince all too often cavorting in near-darkness.

For a large chunk of the audience, getting the beers in seemed to be of equal importance to actually watching the show, with what amounted to a mass exodus during the first and longest of the instrumentals (Maceo Parker from James Brown’s old band, parping his way at leisure through a languid and syrupy What A Wonderful World). The people directly behind us swiftly reached the Totally Shitfaced stage, but at least their noisiness was benign. (Elsewhere in the Arena, a spectacularly inebriated woman threw up over the backs of the people in front of her. We wuz lucky.)

Oh, but we mustn’t grumble. The show had its moments, and the band were shit-hot – especially the four-piece brass troupe, as led by the aforementioned Mr. Parker, and especially during the set’s “funk” section, with Black Sweat and Controversy scaling the very heights of tightness. For the diehard fans, following the seldom heard Joy In Repetition (from Graffiti Bridge) with Parade‘s Anotherloverholenyohead was altogether A Bit On The Special Side. For the more casual crowd, solid, bankable tracks from Purple Rain dominated the end of the show, and it was fun to hear an updated Kiss: “You don’t have to watch Big Brother, to have an attitude…”

Only one track – the straightforward old-school rocker Guitar – was performed from the new album, copies of which were handed out to everyone who entered the arena, just in case our ideological scruples had prevented us from picking it up with the Mail On Sunday a couple of weeks earlier. Hearteningly, it turned out to be one of the strongest and best received performances of the night, already sounding like a bona fide hit in its own right. Saving it up for the last song of the last encore was a bold but justified move.

But oh dear, what a pointless palaver those encores turned out to be. We already knew that on the opening night of his 21-date run, two days earlier, Prince had fooled half the crowd by waiting until the house lights were up and the venue emptying, before dashing back on stage for a seemingly impromptu third encore. So we weren’t about to be fooled again. A stand-off ensued, with absolutely no-one budging, even though the house lights had been on for ages. And yes, oh GOODNESS what a shock, back on he bounded, for a repeat version of the same stunt. Which of course meant that we certainly weren’t going anywhere after the next exit. After all, there had been three encores on Wednesday, with nearly two and a half hours of playing time, so surely he wasn’t going to call it a night after two encores and less than two hours?

No such luck. After another expectant stand-off, during which we noticed our nearest camera operator patiently sitting tight and checking his text messages (so THAT was a sign, right?), a tannoy announcement was made, asking us to clear the venue. Which of course prompted a certain measure of booing. Oops. It was a ragged end to what had sometimes felt like a ragged, under-powered and half-hearted performance. Two dates into the run, wasn’t it a little early for Just Another Day At The Office Syndrome to be kicking in?

Despite being urged, via a special reminder e-mail, to “hang out” in the O2 after the show, the crushing reality was that, at a couple of minutes before 11pm, seemingly all of the venue’s food and drink outlets were closing for the night. If there was a funky little after-hours joint to be found in this gargantuan, antiseptic Branding Opportunity of a venue, with its faintly menacing air of regimented slickness, then we certainly didn’t stumble across it. Back to the car park we trudged, vainly casting around for non-existent burger vans, for the only sit-down we were likely to find between now and the after-show party, queues for which were already stretching far outside the building.

Ah, the after-show party. The anticipatory buzz was palpable, even in these corporate hell-hole surroundings. Prince’s after-show sets are the stuff of legend, after all. Our night of mixed fortunes was about to get very special indeed. Of that at least, we had no doubt.

Jump straight to Part Two.

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