Boston Area Visited by Rock Royalty

Fellow Rock And Roll Hall of Fame inductees Prince and David Bowie both made triumphant appearances in and around Boston this week. In the case of Bowie, he was making up a Fleet Center show that was originally scheduled to take place in December. As for Prince, he gave fans at the Regal Cinema in Marlborough, and theaters all across the country, the opportunity to see a simulcast of his Monday night tour opener in Los Angeles.

First, Bowie:
Wow is the word! Anyone who saw Paul McCartney on his most recent tour likely marveled at how he maintained a consistently high level of energy throughout his performance. Ditto for Bowie. He rocked for two whole hours, pacing himself effectively and saving some of his most energetic performances for the encore.

As has always been the case with the “thin white Duke” (the name Bowie gave his mid-’70s paranoid, cocaine-fueled persona), Bowie spent most of the evening living in the present. About a third of the songs he performed were drawn from his two most recent albums, with most of those tunes coming from his current release, Reality (ISO/Columbia).

Those in attendance anticipating classics, however, were not completely disappointed. I did overhear fans talking about songs they would have liked to have heard, but what they did get was nothing to sneeze at.

Opening with “Rebel, Rebel,” Bowie had the typically unfazed Boston crowd feeling enthusiastic right from the beginning. He then proceeded to up the energy level considerably with the quick-tempo glam rocker “Hang On To Yourself,” from the classic album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (Virgin). Bowie would save the more popular cuts from this, his most enduring classic, for the encore.

Two of the most well-received songs in the set were originally features for other artists. “All the Young Dudes” has been frequently reclaimed by Bowie in concert, though he gave it to the Mott the Hoople as a career-reviving single in the early ’70s. “Under Pressure” also received feverish response, particularly when Bowie introduced the song as one he wrote for Freddie Mercury. As the crowd roared, Bowie pointed and looked upwards, as if to say, “listen Freddie, they’re cheering for you down here!” The 1981 hit duet with Queen featured Bowie’s bassist, Gail Ann Dorsey, singing the parts originally sung by Mercury. Though Mercury was unable to scale the high notes of the song by his last tour with Queen in 1986, Dorsey hit them all with an effortlessness that likely would have knocked Freddie’s socks off.

The most noteworthy performances, however, were the new songs. Bowie is rare in that his current material is strong enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with his early classics. Songs like “New Killer Star,” “Reality,” “Looking for Water” and “Days” have the lyrics, hooks and catchy refrains that are the hallmarks of his ’70s hits, as well as the edgy arrangements that lend themselves well to live performances. They were no more out of place among tunes from Ziggy Stardust and songs from his so-called “Berlin trilogy” of his albums Low, Heroes and Lodger (all Virgin) than his ’80s hits “China Girl” and “Blue Jean,” which benefited tremendously from the treatment given by his fine band.

Though Bowie was eager to feature his new material, Prince, on the other hand, was more eager to be a show-stopping crowd pleaser.

Fresh from his induction into the aforementioned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last month, the show began with a video of Alicia Keys’ glowing induction speech from the event, edited together with various clips from throughout Prince’s storied career, including shots of his infamous “slave” facial markings from the mid ’90s.

From there, Prince and his New Power Generation band got right to it with the title track from his latest album, Musicology (NPG/Columbia), which was given away to all attendees of the simulcast. It will also be given away to attendees of his live concerts, in addition to being released for retail purchase on April 20.

From there, it was two hours of literally non-stop music – Prince and the NPG rarely ever paused between songs. With so many highlights occurring in such a short period of time, I took it upon myself to create awards for some of the most noteworthy:

MOST EFFECTIVE PLACEMENT OF A CLASSIC* – “Let’s Go Crazy” was the second tune in the set, following “Musicology.” There were very few pauses in between songs, so the audience didn’t have to wait in suspense. All they needed to hear was “dearly beloved…” Just imagine the response.

MOST JAW-DROPPING BAND INTERPLAY* – Prince and the NPG never jammed harder than they did on “Controversy.” Especially of note was the moment Prince signaled the bass and drums to drop out as the horns proceeded to weave solos over his rhythm guitar. Sweet!!

MOST SURPRISING BAND MEMBERS* – NPG keyboard player Chance Howard did a great job belting out “Soul Man.” Also, I had no idea Candy Dulfer could sing – leads, not just backgrounds. Having her so often in the spotlight returned Prince to the format of sharing the stage with talented ladies like Rosie Gaines, Sheila E., and the duo of Wendy and Lisa.

MOST OVER-THE-TOP SOLO* – Nope, it wasn’t any of Prince’s guitar solos. Sure, he can be flashy, and he was flashy all night, but he was definitely out-flashed by saxophonist Mike Phillips. During an instrumental, Prince-less version of “God,” Phillips did a classic show-off with circular breathing so he could hold a single note for what seemed like five whole minutes, though it was probably only 1 and a half. The audience went nuts.

SELF-CONGRATULATORY MOMENTS* were scattered throughout the show as Prince proclaimed the virtues of “real music” played by “real musicians.” I got the distinct impression he was preaching to the choir.

PRINCE UNPLUGGED?* – Yup, that’s right, on acoustic guitar for the start of the encore. “Forever In My Life” sounded great in this format, even though it’s only one chord. Ditto for “Little Red Corvette,” a song with quite a few more chords. The new song “On the Couch” sounded like the spawn of Adam Sandler and “One of Your Tears” from Crystal Ball (NPG).

The audience loved it, of course. Everyone loves to laugh.

MOST OBSCURE TUNES* – These were also the only songs molded into a medley, or at least an intentionally discernible one: “The Question of U” from Graffitti Bridge (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.) and “The One” from NewPowerSoul (NPG). “The One” especially was a massive improvement over the studio version. It was performed with so much personality, it made me hope for a live album. The tour will need one anyway, just because of the classics performed outside of medleys.

MOST ANNOYING LYRIC CHANGES* – “DMSR” was revised to remove references to public nudity and dancing like a hooker, and “I Would Die 4 U” sported a single pronoun change in one lyric to acknowledge a higher power.

MOST WELCOME CLASSIC THAT HASN’T BEEN PERFORMED IN AGES* – this award goes to “7” which was performed during the unplugged set.

MOST NOTICEABLE ABSENCES* – “Raspberry Beret,” “Diamonds and Pearls,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” Larry Graham – Rhonda Smith is in his place, and she is equally funky.

MOST OBVIOUS PLACEMENT OF A CLASSIC* – I’m sure everyone must have guessed that “Purple Rain” would be the set closer.

Prince is delivering exactly what his audience wants for the first time in years – full versions of a boatload of classics, only a sprinkling of new material, and searing guitar solos-a-plenty. He could probably extend this tour to the end of next year if he wanted to. And hey, the new album isn’t bad either. It does a much better job of accomplishing what Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (NPG/Arista) was supposed to do back in ’99 – play like a classic Prince album.