It is par for the course on Valentine’s day to hearken keenly to breathless hints, succumb to whispers, be deliciously led to the summits of delight by teasing promises, promising teases.
This time, when I was almost certain, I ran, heart pounding, straight into a cab. Enduring a torturous journey with a friendly driver keen to discuss communism, while I was texting and checking the latest messages, yearning to be where my heart lay. I arrived to stand alone in uncertainty and longing which came to slow relief as I queued for an hour and a half in wild and restless wind and rain to see Prince play in King’s Place.
We had been catching hints on social media, finally following them when they suggested something true. My friend arrived to the queue only five minutes after I did and was about 80 people behind me. We thought it uncouth to jump the queue though it transpired he was 8 people away from getting in to the first show. A girl got booed by the 300 people she passed to then settle in with her friends, gulping away the shame with a fag and a can of beer.
The queue was nervous but friendly, there was an air of mystery to the night which led the man in front of me to be convinced I was wearing my hood up to disguise myself from paparazzi, he thought my voice sounded famous. I told him ’thanks, I can assure you I’m nobody, I’m wearing this because of the rain’, but he gave me a narrow eyed look suggesting he thought I must be bluffing.
Once inside and with my ticket, one final obstacle between me and Prince, acoustic, in a tiny room! I had to go to the bathroom, another man and I stood side by side, each of us impatiently cursing aloud at the slow will of nature keeping us bound to the porcelain.
Then I dashed in to the venue, to the sound of acoustic guitar and the unmistakable vocals of the man himself.
The room was warm and intimate, on stage he and the band were at once tight and playful. The musicians responded to his lead, so too the flow of the evening, which gave everything a professional but ever so slightly chaotic feel, as if anything could happen. After us dancing away to an acoustic ‘You Got the Look’ he suggested we sit while he and 3rdeyegirl jammed together and we dutifully did. What was particularly enjoyable was being in such close proximity that one could see clearly the expression on his face change, from passing notes of slight annoyance at a very rare misstep, to the contentment, joy and abandon upon his face as he sang and played.
We enjoyed first an acoustic set, where his raw talent was clear and bright to witness, featuring several remarkable covers. Particularly a lively and soulful take on the Clash’s Train in Vain, a dirty, funky, Bill Withers’ ‘Who is he and what is he to you?’ and a beautiful Crimson and Clover, soft and low, with the women in the audience providing a backing refrain of ‘over and over’ to the song’s end. He then segued into an electric set, funky and raw. Beginning the wild ride with him at the keys covering Billy Cobham’s Stratus.
Next he treated us to his exhilarating electric guitar: He has a great voice, is an accomplished pianist, but I’ve never seen anyone play electric guitar as well as Prince. It’s not just his technical ability, the complete mastery and assurance, which is staggering, but also the artistic musical invention on the fly. Stunning flourishes of melody and rhythm that burst forth, captivating and spectacular as fireworks in the night.
In contrast to his guitar playing, the Q and A element was interesting but slightly awkward, he gave self-effacing answers to effusive fans. The question on everyone’s lips could be surmised as ‘why are you so great?’, but when someone asked him basically this, he just rolled his eyes, soaked up the laughter, and went back to the music. Later on, in the midst of the electric set, one questioner rambled on with a densely worded question full of fan-knowledge about Prince’s remarkably diverse English influences: ‘I know you know Gary Numan…’ Prince did not quite answer the question, but shortly after, nodded to it somewhat by playing a very beautiful instrumental version of Roxy Music’s More Than this on electric guitar. I was rapt, because it was lovely and a marvellous synthesis of two musical worlds that I admire deeply. From a place without myself, I slowly became aware that I was literally on the edge of my seat, grinning, with a heart brimful of warm happiness.
In his longest response he told about how he found Jesus through Larry Graham, and while this could have been cloying, it was actually quite touching and added to the sense of proximity with him as he shared something obviously so personal to him, with wit and without preachiness.
Then he returned to the rock and the funk, we all danced, it was loud, fervent and mesmerisingly good. He seemed to be enjoying himself along with the rest of us. Partly, I wanted him to play my favourite songs, but this did not detract from enjoying his new material. The whole gig had an organic flow to it, it was extraordinary, stripped down, raw and scintillating. It may all have been cynical marketing for a new album, but last time he toured the UK he sold hundreds of thousands of tickets and played a huge stadium night after night. He could easily have done this again, yet he had chosen to do something completely different.
Maybe this was him seeking a particular experience for himself, not only us, perhaps trying to recapture some connection with music and the audience that he may have lost as his stardom has escalated stratospherically, carrying him far beyond the simple world we inhabit into the awesome but lonely and distant dark night full of stars. At one point he gestured to someone in the front row for a swig of their drink, they apologetically offered up an almost empty pint glass and Prince declined the dregs, but he had a playful grin on his face that seemed to indicate that he was amused, happy and comfortable.
After an hour and a half, there was a crescendo of music and then he asked if we wouldn’t mind leaving so the 500 people waiting outside – ‘our brothers and sisters’ could come in from the cold. I didn’t want to leave, but I was happy to, he had created a warm and loving atmosphere and made us all feel not just witness to, but part of, something very special.
Personally I feel very lucky to have seen him in such a modest space, it was a great (though expensive) privilege to watch him close up, playing in a relatively uncontrived and inventive way for so few people. Outside, I saw my friend at the front of the crowd ready to go in for the second show. I made some appreciative hand gestures that attempted to express the joy I felt but could not hope to. Maybe some types of joy can only be communicated through music I thought to myself as I put my hood up, turned my phone back on, and went back to being nobody in the rain.