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

(Part One is here.)

The 2000-odd capacity Indigo club – whoops, sorry, IndigO2, can’t be missing a Brand Reinforcement Opportunity – is billed as the Arena’s, ahem, “intimate space”. And fair play to their design team: it’s a swish-looking, well-appointed venue, which does its level best to make you forget that you’re actually still trapped inside a corporate hell-hole in the middle of nowhere. OK, so some seats would have been a nice touch, but they were strictly reserved for the 75-quid-a-pop “VIP” crowd, separated off from the rest of us in their own dedicated balcony area.

But hey, we proles in the £27.50 (incl. booking fee) standing area – some of whom had been queuing for over an hour (but not us, diligent researchers that we are), only to discover that we all had equally good views of the stage anyway – didn’t care about any of that. After all, we had gained admittance to the hallowed inner sanctum, and to the opportunity that some of us had been dreaming of for years: to see Prince in after-hours mode, kicking loose and jamming with his band, all in the name of pure musicianship rather than stadium show-boating. As I said before, these Prince after-shows are the stuff of legend.

The atmosphere in the Indigo2 was buzzing. On Wednesday night, the band had played for an hour and three quarters, with Prince joining them for lengthy sections. Sure, we didn’t expect him to be on stage for the whole period. We knew that. There would probably be 30 or 40 minutes of warm-up first, that kind of thing.

For now, Prince’s dedicated DJ was spinning a set of predominantly funky house over the superbly crisp and warm sound system, mixed with the occasional “special”, such as an exclusive new mix of Sexy MF, cut up with samples from the C&C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat. Chelsea Rodgers, my favourite track from the new album, got people smiling and even a few of us dancing. Not too much of a crush in front of the stage, plenty of people chilling out on the floor towards the back of the venue, saving their energy for later.

At around 1:15 – same time as Wednesday, nice bit of consistency there – the lights went down. “Please welcome, from New Orleans, Dr John and his band!”

Woah, tres tres cool! As the veteran New Orleans performer settled at his piano, leading his band through a delightfully rolling Iko Iko, the four of us exchanged grins, marvelling at our extra luck. Fancy Prince being able to land such an impressive special guest! That’s influence for you.

(Well, how were we to know that Dr John had already played a scheduled concert at the same venue, earlier that evening? We can’t all be experts.)

I wondered how the rest of the show would pan out. Dr John’s band were over to the right side of the stage, with most of the left side left empty, including spare microphone and instrument stands, and even a spare keyboard. Presumably the John band would hand over to the Prince band at some stage, maybe with some combined jamming. Woah, a Prince and Dr John collaboration would be something special all right… we’d just have to wait and see.

Time passed. Dr John’s old favourite Such A Night got an airing, but I didn’t recognise much else. Actually, my attention was starting to wander. So far, so Jools Holland. We needed to step up a little.

My attention was wandering so much that I didn’t particularly notice the stage hands clearing away some of the unused equipment on the left hand side, even as the band played on… although was it just me, or were they beginning to flag now? Did I detect an uncertainty, an awkwardness, a reticence to hog the whole show?

As one number finished, a figure in the wings made a motion to the band with his outstretched fingers. It looked like the international sign language for “five more minutes”. Phew, and not before time.

A couple more numbers later, the same figure made the same hand signal. And was it just me, or was the end of each song being greeted by ever louder applause, as if to hasten the end of the set?

At around 2:30, after about an hour and a quarter on stage, Dr John finally called it a day, “so that Prince can come on and do his stuff”. Big cheer. About bloody time and all! I noted with some amusement that Dr John hadn’t played his best known song, Right Place, Wrong Time. That really would have been rubbing salt in the wound. Two chuffing thirty in the chuffing morning! Ee, the accommodations that we make for genius!

The curtains closed, and the music came on again. A notably less scintillating selection than last time, but we were barely concentrating. Although, hang about, did we really need to hear Chelsea Rodgers again? And why were they starting to focus more on Prince’s biggest hits? What a strange way of building the mood for a jam session…

Time passed. A good forty-five minutes or so, I’d say. And then, a friendly word from a young guy who was just on his way back from the bar.

“Thought you might like to know. They’ve just told me at the bar that Prince left the building about 20 minutes ago. He’s tired and he won’t be playing.”

Even as we began to process the news, the music started to fade and the house lights started to flicker on and off. No announcement, just a general numbed-out bemusement as word slowly began to spread. Nearly three chuffing thirty in the chuffing morning, over four and a half hours after our last sighting of the man, and now, NOW he deigns to tell us.

I stared at my £27.50 ticket again. “PRINCE AFTERSHOW”, it said, in big capitals. By the exit door, a member of the Indigo2 staff was all placatory apologies, they weren’t to know, he just upped and went, etc etc. And by the way, sir, you can’t take that out with you. I handed him the flat dregs of my plastic mug of lager and stumbled out of the venue, still in a daze.

The reason that we bought the tickets in the first place? There was an item on Radio 4’s Front Row, telling their listeners that Prince would be playing a late night set after each one of his 21 London dates.

Throughout the complete online ordering process, via the O2 website and Ticketmaster, at no point was it ever suggested that Prince might not play.

During the whole of that Friday night, not one announcement was made to that effect. Oh, of course, they never actually said that he would be playing, either. We were just rather led to assume that. Because, you know, who would pay £27.50 for a DJ, an act that we hadn’t come to see (who was already in the venue anyway), no seats, no food, and the chance to buy the only alcohol left on sale for miles around?

As to how much money Prince himself will be earning from lending his name to this rather costly ongoing lottery (the following night, he joined his support act Nikka Costa on stage for just one number), one can only speculate.

Over on the main fan forum, the hardcore faithful had little sympathy for our collective plight. These aftershow no-shows are commonplace, apparently. It’s all part of being a Prince fan, apparently. God, didn’t we know that? This was an aftershow party, a chance for like-minded souls to hang out together and discuss the tour. If there was no atmosphere, that was our fault for not making an effort. In fact, it was probably our fault that Prince had decided not to play. Not enough dancing, everybody squashed in front of the stage, how uncouth! All those drunks, slumped on the floor, how disrespectful! How could he be expected to face that?

And, for heavens sakes, hadn’t we read the posting on Prince’s official site? (Posted on Monday July 30th, well after we had bought our tickets, but that’s by the by.)

After each gig in London, walk over 2 the indigO2 (which will be renamed 3121 of course) 4 the official aftershow parties. This will be the white hot place 2 hang 4 those still in need of some serious grooves. Prince and the band are not guaranteed 2 per4m, but as we all know with these cats – xpect the unexpected.

Oh, it was unexpected, all right. Can’t fault ’em on that one.

Over an hour into our homeward journey, at Toddington services on the M1, the four of us finally found somewhere that served food. Desultorily chowing down on my egg mayonnaise roll and smoothie (£6.48, plus a free apology from the cashier at the ruinous expense), a few yards away from the heap of prostrate bodies on the floor of the amusement arcade, I wondered whether, at that time of the morning, there was any more desolate place to be found in the British Isles. Cheers for that, Prince. Cheers for that, O2.

My final waking thought, as my head hit the pillow at 7:00 am: I am too old for this shit.

I mean to say. A well respected and much admired, nay loved, figure of immense cultural influence, who earned his reputation years ago but who has been coasting ever since, now well past his peak, teasing his remaining supporters with half-shows and no-shows, and arrogantly assuming that they will put up with whatever shit he deigns to throw at them? Whoever heard of such a thing?

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