Even 27 years on from his magic 1984, there's still something grand and peculiar about Prince inspiring an arena to shout, "I'm not your woman/ I'm not your man/ I am something you will never understand."
At Saturday's hit-packed, blissed-out, night-before-the-rapture San Jose show, he - and we-- then joined together two encores later in another collective statement of individual inscrutability. A lift had lowered Prince to his chrysalis beneath the stage, and for eight or so minutes we hollered and stomped and made that high-pitched ah-oh! ah-oh! call until he finished leveling up or whatever.
He emerged and kicked into "Controversy," complete with a new descending digital curlicue as squiggly and inventive as that love-sign symbol he's had built into his actual stage. A couple thousand people sang, "Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?"That wasn't long after he cooed through "If I Was Your Girlfriend," that ode to hetero sisterhood so progressively gender-pretzled that even in '87, near his commercial and artistic peak, the single didn't chart here in the U.S. At 52, he's still unclassifiable, but in wildly different ways. Somewhere in the '90s, Prince sloughed off that feminine ambiguity. He's lately taken up religion more forcefully than before and disavowed dirty 'ol masterworks like "Erotic City" and "Sexy Motherfucker." He grinds out an album a year, with imperfect ratios of killer to filler, especially now that sexual obsession - his great subject - is now off the table. (Although he did promise to "do it in the kitchen on the table top" Saturday night.) These CDs he distributes through unconventional means to at least some 100,000 or so committed U.S. Fans, meaning he's a top-selling indie artist who just happens to be one of the last international rock stars, and certainly the last in the sex-and-God genius bug-funk division. So, even though consensus opinion is now clear that he's not a woman, he's still plenty tough to understand. Or predict. His San Jose shows have been genial affairs, almost nothing but hits, plus Sheila E., confetti cannons, and gorgeous dancing twins that prove this older chap's taste in sisters is more refined than Mr. Hefner's. The shows demonstrate two things above all else: that his talents as a singer, showman, and bandleader are undiminshed, even at age 52, and that , for audiences, these remain more than enough. The indie Jehovah's Witness jazz-funk stuff he's left behind for Los Angeles, where he's been playing a 21 date residency at Inglewood's Forum. I caught one of those L.A. shows: five or six hits in three hours of music that included a blazingly funky unreleased political rant; glorious b-side "She's Always in My Hair"; recent album tracks like "Dreamer," "Future Soul Song," and "Lay It Down," the last two of which haven't even received official U.S. release; full-length treatment of plush falsetto ballads "Scandalous," "Adore," and "Insatiable"; and not a single song a causal fan would have recognized until half an hour in. Saturday's San Jose show, by contrast, included just two ventures into the wilds of back catalog. First, "Shhh!", the guitar-squalling quiet-storm 1995 sex jam, which he now augments with silly new lyrics like "You without me is like cookies without milk." Then, after a disco celebration of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," Prince and his current New Power Generation (Renato Nato, John Blackwell, Ida Neilsen) grooved through "Cool," a top-shelf funk piffle from the first Time LP - one of those songs that Prince used to be pretend he had not written and recorded himself. The crowd sang loudly to "Take Me With You" and "Raspberry Beret." But to "Cool" they boogied with the same abandon. Hits or not, the peaks of both types of Prince shows are musical rather than nostalgic. In San Jose, these highlights were Sheila E.'s ecstatic drumming on "The Glamorous Life," Prince's own guitar over an extended "Little Red Corvette" that soaked in that classic's epic opening chords, and a duet take on "Nothing Compares 2 U" on which Prince and singer Shelby J. schooled the world on the fundamentals of gospel-tinged soul belting. The New Power Generation also built "Musicology" into a powerful workout over which Prince asked, again and again, "What's my name?" even as he strutted along on the symbol that, for a time, had been this question's confounding answer. Prince may be a thousand things that overlap and contradict and can't quite be pinned down. But on stage they cohere and take fire. Leaving a Prince show, I find it hard not to toy with the kind of superlatives critics are taught to avoid. Seriously: has any other pop performer maintained full command of his or her power 35 years into a career? Set List: DMSR Pop Life Musicology Shhhhh The Glamorous Life Let's Go Crazy Delirious Little Red Corvette Nothing Compares 2 U Take Me With You Raspberry Beret Cream Don't Stop Till You Get Enough/Cool Let's Work U Got the Look Purple Rain Solo Medley: When Doves Cry/ Nasty Girl/ Sign O' the Times/ Hot Thing/ Most Beautiful Girl in the World/ Screams of Passion/ Darling Nikki/ Forever in My Life I Would Die 4 U If I Was Your Girlfriend Kiss Controversy, with hints of Housequake Play That Funky Music