Purple night
Prince at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, 21 February 2016

And there he was, life-sized, circling the piano in anticipation, as 2000 or so concert-goers screamed and clapped and whistled fit to bring the roof down. He carried a silver-white cane, and his shoes lit up in the dark, of course. Would you expect anything less singular?

He took his seat at the black grand piano. Out of all his hundreds of songs, he chose to begin with one co-written for another artist. ‘Love … Thy Will Be Done’ was a hit for Martika in 1991. Prince played it slowly, in a hymnal mood: “Even when there’s no peace outside my window / There’s peace inside,” he sang. Synthetic string pads were being triggered, somehow, in sync with his piano.

Then he switched into ‘Big City’, from his most recent studio album, HITnRUN Phase Two, released last December. “Bright lights, a sea of faces / Something tells me this is gonna be fun.” He smirked. We hollered. This pivot from the almost sacred to the definitely down-and-dirty would define the evening’s set, as it has defined Prince’s career, though here, as he sailed solo through his catalogue, the juxtaposition felt most startling, and cogent.

Sometimes he played the piano like a barroom broad. Sometimes he played one-handed. When he played standing up – and especially when, to go along with it, he unleashed that passionate falsetto – the ghost of Little Richard was in the room. He gave us fragments of Ray Charles (‘Unchain My Heart’) and Joni Mitchell (‘A Case of You’), and they joined the congregation, too. The lovelorn ballads – ‘The Breakdown’, ‘Eye Love U, But Eye Don’t Trust U Anymore’ – had a pure intensity. They felt addressed to someone real and just out of sight. Vanity, his former lover and protégé, died less than a week ago. Whomever Prince was singing for, we, the audience, were one conductor in a larger electrical circuit. The concert hall hummed.

Highlights? There were several. ‘Joy In Repetition’ (from the soundtrack to Graffiti Bridge) arrived early in the set. Prince drew out the left-hand part languorously, giving us a lesson in funk. “A little bit behind the beat / I mean just enough 2 turn you on.” This was one of those rare shows where time seemed suspended – or rather, the artist on stage seemed to take charge of it, shaping its flow to his will. He teased us with snippets and medleys: half of ‘Little Red Corvette’ folded into a verse from ‘Dirty Mind’, the opening chords to ‘Condition of the Heart’. (I swore in excitement. Sorry, Prince. I know you don’t like curse words.) ‘How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?’ was a glorious blues, and it seemed to last for days. He directed some of the audience (“Just the ladies”) to sing with him, and we did. Trust Prince to wring a singalong out of a B-side.

There was ‘Satisfied’ (“Let me tell you, baby, all tricks aside / I can get you out of your body”) and ‘Adore’. Prince is the most erotic songwriter in popular music because he understands the power of surrender. He is chased as much as he chases. He lets himself be overwhelmed, and he lets you feel it. He squeals and shrieks and waves his hands in the air. It is a kind of gospel. Prince sings of rapture. “I want to make you come,” he proclaimed.

And it wasn’t over. For an encore, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, though he made us beg for it, hitting the first few notes and then leaping up from the piano until the collective frenzy was enough to persuade him back to the instrument. Then he played the whole song through, and I did feel out of my body. ‘Kiss’ had the whole audience on their feet and singing, though really, who else but Prince can do justice to that melody line?

At last, ‘Purple Rain’, the perfect conclusion, though hardly inevitable, considering the twists and turns of the evening. It was a shortened version – not even Prince himself could find a way to outdo his famous guitar solo, so he skipped that part – but no less majestic. And then he left. The Opera House was aglow with purple light.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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