After a long dry spell, Minneapolis' enduring megastar reconnected with hometown fans in a big way at a tiny club.
To Hiro Sugihara, it must have seemed as if Twin Cities music fans can catch Minneapolis' most famous star any night of the week.
"I'm going to tell everyone at home about this on Facebook," raved the 41-year-old Tokyo resident, a Prince fan who simply hoped to visit "Purple Rain" landmark First Avenue during a business trip here. Instead, he became one of 1,600 or so mostly ecstatic ticket-holders who saw Prince play a much smaller downtown music haven, the Dakota Jazz Club.
Only Prince's hometown fans know how lucky the Japanese visitor was. Friday night, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer wrapped up a three-night marathon of six gigs that were his first public performances on home turf since 2007.
They may go down as some of the most legendary, too.
These casual shows were all about breaking in new band members, Prince said. "A good way to get to know the new people is to watch them work," he said in an e-mail relayed by Los Angeles blogger Jeremiah Freed, aka Dr. Funkenberry, a friend who also announced the concerts online.
Prince likened the concerts to public workouts once held by another legend: "Muhammad Ali trained in public gyms that were open to the press; he was a prime inspiration."
In this case, the champ has been on something of a losing streak. Album sales and radio play have dwindled over the past decade, although he is still a hot concert ticket, as proven by sold-out 2012 Australia and Chicago arena dates in an otherwise quiet year.
If this week's gigs don't spark a comeback in 2013, they at least confirmed that the rock 'n' roll love affair with Prince still burns locally despite his years away from stages here. (He still keeps up a local residence and works out of his Paisley Park studio in Chanhassen.)
"He's attended a number of shows here, so I think he felt comfortable," said Dakota co-owner Lowell Pickett, who shrugged off the logistical challenges posed by the shows, which weren't announced until Tuesday. "Everyone is just so excited to have him here."
The Dakota's online ticketing system crashed under heavy demand when tickets ($70-$250) went on sale, and anti-scalping measures had to be established by the club.
Fans who did get into the candlelit performances relished the intimacy -- especially on Friday, when he unveiled an all-female backup band and a new heavy funk-rock sound. Friday's first show was the most expensive ($250), exhaustive (100 minutes, 25 longer than any other) and most guitar-dominated. And the only show at which Prince didn't wear sunglasses or have people seated on the main floor. He even played "Purple Rain" on piano.
"We didn't know what to expect because it was advertised as 'surprise,' but it exceeded my expectations," said Jeff Whitman, 44, of Minneapolis. "Best show I've ever seen."
"He has great energy, great stage presence and a great sense of humor," said first-timer Ben Frey, 26, of St. Paul.
Tom Shiah, 64, of Minneapolis, attended gigs on Friday and Wednesday. "It was a dichotomy; different vibe each time and I loved both of them," he said Friday. "Tonight was more down and dirty."
Not only did this week's concerts prove that Prince has still got it -- he spent as much time sizzling on guitar and keyboards as singing -- they suggested he still has a thing for hometown crowds.
"It's like watching him in your basement," said Ted Cheesebrough, 38, of St. Paul, who attended Wednesday's all-instrumental jams.
After Thursday's shows, when Prince mixed up old R&B tunes with some less familiar songs of his own, Sharon Kahler, 46, of Burnsville said she had been "afraid there would be very little Prince and I would be disappointed. I let go of my expectations at the beginning when he said, 'You're allowed to dance.' The energy was fantastic. It was worth every penny."
"We know him a little better, I think," said Sara Savoy, 41, of Savage, who -- like most of the fans interviewed -- was not disappointed by the lack of hits but rather intrigued by the shows' oddness. "Any time you try to figure Prince out, you've already made a mistake. One thing we know for certain: He just loves playing music."
He seemed to enjoy playing with local audiences, too. Wednesday he strummed a few notes of his 1980 hit "When You Were Mine," then yelled, "Psych!" On Thursday, he hollered, "Get up, grandma!" to a woman seated at the foot of the stage. All week, he blew kisses around the room.
Will the run continue?
Several of his former music associates turned out to see the musical workouts, including Bobby Z, drummer in Prince's "Purple Rain" band the Revolution, and his brother, producer/engineer David Z.
The rationale behind the shows made sense to singer and drummer Stokley Williams of the R&B band Mint Condition.
"This was great for us, but it really was all for him and the band," Williams said at Wednesday's jam. "A band can rehearse for weeks inside its space, but the adrenaline kicks in and the dynamic always changes when you come to a place like this."
One question is whether Prince has enjoyed himself enough to keep a good thing going. Although local duo Ginger and Bobby Commodore are scheduled to play the Dakota on Saturday, Prince has rented the club through Monday.
"We're taking it a day at a time," proprietor Pickett said.
One thing is certain, said Bobby Z: "This club will never be the same, like First Avenue was never the same after 'Purple Rain.'"
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 Twitter: @ChrisRstrib
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 • @jonbream