Bruce Springsteen and Prince.
They ranked No. 1 and 2 last fall when I listed the top live performers witnessed in my 40 years at the Star Tribune. Last month, I saw both of them live again in the same week, near the beginning of tours presenting themselves in ways their fans had never experienced before.
It's exciting — and reassuring — to see this newness, so to speak, from two greats deep into their careers.
Springsteen, a master at staging shows that are purposeful yet seemingly spontaneous, started his concert at Chicago's United Center with the entirety of "The River," his 1980 double album. That meant the concert began with 20 songs carved in stone (he did graft on one outtake) that stretched for two hours, including all his between-song explications.
At his Paisley Park studio in Chanhassen, Prince played a solo piano show — his first-ever solo performance. Actually, he offered two shows in one night — performances that were different in concept, tone and content even though, surprisingly for him, he wore the same outfit for both. Go figure.
What both Rock and Roll Hall of Famers were doing in their performances was trying to explain what they were thinking at certain points of their lives. For Springsteen, 66, such introspection is familiar in concert. However, for Prince, 57, to open up is rare. As I said in my review, it was as if he exposed his inner soul via this stripped-down musical autobiography.
"The River" was somewhat autobiographical for Springsteen. His fifth album, it came at a time when the singer, then 30, and the other guys in the E Street Band were thinking of settling down — which is not what rock stars necessarily do. The themes of the songs on the album — dreams, marriage, fidelity — were issues he was grappling with at the time.
Playing the deep cuts
Springsteen's show, like Prince's, plays better for fanatics than casual fans. While "The River" may contain a slew of exciting, up-tempo and even punkish songs, Side 2 features some slower, deep-thought pieces that don't necessarily play well in an arena with 20,000 beer-drinking fans who can't wait for "Born to Run." Chicago was only Night 2 of the 22-city "The River" tour that will bring the Boss to St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center on Feb. 29. The vibe could change by Leap Day.
Playing in front of a mere 1,200 Purple devotees in the intimacy of Paisley Park, Prince hewed to a ballad groove, explaining his relationship with music, his dad and Twin Cities radio, and demonstrating how he composes and analyzes music. Prince has never been so forthcoming in interviews, let alone onstage.
There was a freshness to Springsteen, as well, even though he wasn't his usual hyperkinetic self. You could sense a newfound joy in the Boss and especially guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who frolicked like his BFF foil throughout the concert, relishing singing at the same microphone and performing songs from what he calls his favorite Springsteen album. While Van Zandt seemed super-comfortable, Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, seemed inconsequential in concert, singing a little backup and playing acoustic guitar. At least fellow backup singer Soozie Tyrell pulled out her fiddle on a few tunes. The two women contributed more in the 75-minute, post-"River" excursion through such Springsteen faves as "The Rising," "Thunder Road" and, of course, "Born to Run."
Tyrell's fiddle provided the bridge during Springsteen's surprise solo acoustic guitar reading of "Take It Easy," a solemn, slightly twangy tribute to the Eagles' Glenn Frey, who'd died a day earlier.
Similarly, Prince acknowledged the recently departed David Bowie in the middle of his own song "Free," by stopping completely and just saying that he met Bowie only once and that the rocker was nice to him and probably nice to everybody. The aside seemed sweet, and a little out of character for Prince, who usually seems lost in his own world.
Prince's first show, while far from a Springsteenian marathon, was his most revealing and personal show ever. He played only a few hits, including "Raspberry Beret" and "I Wanna Be Your Lover," but it was more about the passion and willingness with which he opened the window to his soul.
If this was a preview of Prince's yet-to-be-(re)scheduled Piano and a Microphone Tour (which was canceled in Europe last fall because of the terrorist attacks in Paris), then hard-core fans will have something extraordinary to look forward to. Or they could end up with what his second show at Paisley was: not much talking and more hits (including a tear-inducingly emotional "Purple Rain") done in a solo piano format.
Either way, it will be an extra-special, fanatic-friendly performance by Prince in the same way that Springsteen's River Tour will appeal to his devoted fans.
These new contexts gave me renewed appreciation of Springsteen and Prince in concert. I'd still rank them at the top of my list of live performers — maybe No. 1 and 1A.