prince - 'piano & a microphone'
When I arrived at the theatre, the line was out the door. Correction: lines - one going left, the other to the right. Out the door, around the sizeable front parkade, around the side of the theatre and then doubling back on themselves. And this was for ticket holders only. All huddled in the cold. It bordered on the absurd: excited fans dolled up, shuffling forward a few small steps at a time in some weird expectant pantomime. Some twenty or thirty minutes later I find myself past the entrance so I peruse the merchandise, not really intending to buy anything, and then head to my seat. Because this is what I was here for. It was already ten minutes past the show’s start time. By the time the lights dimmed, it would be another twenty minutes after that. But this is not my first Prince concert so I’m expecting it’ll start late.
Looking around the room, a thought strikes me: how similar we were to audiences of the past, come to see, maybe, Liszt or Paganini play, in a theatre lit up by candles, a piano centre stage, people milling about the aisles, strangers chatting about the artist, cups filled with wine or beer held in happy hands. And yet, how different: cell phones capturing experiences, memories of memories to be made (no photography was allowed and I dared take a photo during the show, as discreetly as I could manage, but security was quick to get me to delete it). But, past and present, we were at our church, waiting for the priest to deliver a sermon so we could worship: humanity, creativity, emotion, music.
Then the lights dimmed and… a Chinese ballad is played over the speakers. Not exactly what I expected. But it is moving, filled with drama, tension, release. Its unexpectedness, its difference and otherness removes us, as an audience and as individuals, from our everyday experience and prepares us for the experience ahead. And then the man himself comes onstage to lights and wild cheers, strutting over to the purple baby grand with a cane. He sits down, plays a chord: resonant, sassy, full of depth. A sound pregnant with expectation. “Toronto!” He intones to the ecstatic audience. A brief pause is followed a smirky, “In case you didn’t know where you were.”
The show is intimate, special, a brief glimpse into his heart, his soul. It sounds like a letter to a past lover, maybe not necessarily romantic but the sharers of a deep love nevertheless, reminiscing over a relationship out of which two people moved their separate ways. There’s a beginning, a flowering, pedal to the metal fast times, friendship, disappointment, heartbreak. And redemption. The set list is irrelevant, I think. There were fan favourites, a few deep cuts, a few songs reworked. But everything was contemplative, about something: celebrating yourself, matters of the heart, letting go, learning to be free, understanding that life is what happens between plans just like the heart of music lies in the space between notes. He mentions his jazz piano playing father as a way of saying where he came from and then shows us the dizzying heights where he’s comfortable being his funk-pop-wizardy self.
There’s such a masterful tango between bruised, heart-wrenching ballads and funky, driving grooves where he says “it’s gonna be hard to stop this one.” The audience is raised as high as his falsetto, brought down in the muddy low end of the piano, and then raised up again, over and over. It’s a cathartic emotional punch to the gut that you welcome, brought about by a man sitting at a piano. To be fair, the piano is not actually a real grand, it’s a keyboard, filled with effects to enhance the notes just so. But they’re used sparingly, nowhere near enough to oversaturate the sound, his vocals, to undermine the mood, his intention, the setting. No, this is a man with over four decades of experience: everything is perfect. Watching this one show, one can learn more about showmanship than spending years in school studying theatre or what have you. Hasn’t he spent his whole career outshining everyone else in the room by overflowing with charisma, creativity, musicianship and technical proficiency? But here, bereft of backing band and pyrotechnics, more than ever you see a musician that's genuine and sincere and so the music is never anything less than sublime, superlative.
And the audience, a mix of young and old and everywhere in between, hipster, posh, rednecky, middle-class parents out on a Friday night while some teenager watches their kids, one couple that looked like they were accountants there to keep track of every note, there was even a Hell's Angels fashioned biker, people from all walks of life: it isn’t just a testament to his appeal, but to the power of his music and his ability as an entertainer. People dancing in the aisles and at their seats, women screaming “You’re beautiful,” during quiet moments, grown men covering their mouths and noticeably sobbing with their shoulders at some songs. Yeah, part of it is probably a bit of hysteria, that happens, but I’m convinced hysteria only had a small part to play. This here was a temple where we came to worship music that makes you feel alive, real music as only a few people can truly play, the kind that has a pulse, the kind that witches your heart into beating along with it, the kind that, even at its saddest, celebrates being, the kind that’s difficult for an atheist to describe without using the words religious experience. Because when you receive the Music from Prince, in the way only a few others can deliver, you feel like your life changes.
Prince is from an era where musicians became mainstream superstars because of their talent. Don’t mistake talent for 'gift' - I mean that, yeah, sure, he was naturally good at music, but then worked his ass off to become who he is today. Is he one of the last of his kind? I think it’s boring writing to say that. There’ll always be very talented musicians… but superstars? Not the point. The point is that he’s unique and inimitably himself and he shares that brilliant side with us through his music, especially onstage. The point is that it’s important to be careful who you choose as your heroes, but if you’ve chosen wisely, well, it’s equally important to go see them while you can. Because they reinvigorate you. They breathe life, through their mastery, into your aspirations and the limits that define them.
It’s important to choose our heroes wisely because we, by and large, define our ideals through what they represent, and those ideals in turn define us and our behaviour. Isn’t there something wrong with a generation that idealizes pimps, strippers, money, and a culture of misogyny? It’s good heroes, those worthy of having a society built after them based on their symbolic qualities that we should like to possess, they are the ones who expand our sense of possibility despite their failings - one must be careful to balance the cynicism arising from the failings of real heroes with a realistic view of the foible follies of human nature. Kant said that "from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Ok; but the best of us have taken that timber, knotted, splintered, warped, only-good-for-firewood, and built something - boldly, beautifully, at personal cost - such that we may, without deifying them, lift our eyes a little higher, try a little harder. And so when given the chance to see one of my heroes, and to see him uphold his end of that bargain, I take it. I take it because I know it will erase from my mind, for a while, that excuse we rely on when we’re just trying to spare ourselves the effort of reaching just beyond what we currently are.