Oh, how he loves to mess with us. The most glaring example of Prince’s playful attitude toward his hometown fans in either of his two sets Wednesday night at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant came midway through the second show, when he uncharacteristically fumbled around on guitar for a few seconds by himself, toying his way into an intentionally clumsy bar or two of “When U Were Mine.” Just as anyone the crowd recognized what would’ve been that set’s only true Prince song, though, he pulled the rug out.
“Psych!” he yelled out with extra snark value.
This fun if wee-bit frustrating moment doubly exemplified Wednesday’s shows. It demonstrated how playful each set was to the core; I seriously don’t know if I’ve ever seen Prince smile/smirk so much through a performance (which is saying something for a guy who so evidently loves to play to a crowd). It also reiterated that these first two of six “rehearsal” sets at the Dakota -- and there’s a chance there could be more, too -- were not about the “hits.”
Like the 8 p.m. show -- written up here for Thursday's newspaper -- the 11 p.m. concert started right on time. That was probably the most abnormal thing about the night. Each set started with a bang, too, or rather more of a rolling beat: The alleged test-drummer Ronald Bruner took the stage first to play a masterful, New Orleans-style second-line beat. Prince and his six-man horn section proceeded to march their way around the entire club (both levels) as if they were strutting their way down Tchoupitoulas Street. This gave everyone in the crowd the chance to note how well the gold cane Prince was twirling like a baton matched his gold-lamé shoes, with clear heels that lit up with flashing red lights like young kids’ safety sneakers. From the get-go, things were up-close and dazzling, if not entirely personal.
So, Prince didn’t communicate with the crowd during the second set, just like the first (outside of his “psych”-out). Even more than the early show, the reaction to his quiet approach in the late performance was mostly a resounding, “So what!” Each of the 70- to 80-minute sets presented Prince at his most musical, if not verbal. And he spent a lot more time improvising on guitar in the second act, alternating between P-Funk style space jams and Pat Metheny-like, rocky jazz noodling to a couple parts that were unequivocally Prince guitar workouts -- “Housequake”-like joints, though not specifically the parts of “Sign o’ the Times” offered in the early show. His ace horn section lead the way through a medley of old soul numbers at the end, too, including Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood.”
All along, the Purple Yoda played Jedi mind tricks with his band members, much the way he messed with the crowd in that "When U Were Mine" instance. When the tenor sax player nailed a part, for instance, he humorously pushed him backstage toward the dressing room as if the fella were showing off too much. When another horn player hit a high note, Prince flipped up the hood up on his white, draping sweater as if to hide (the elegant hoodie was his second of two outfits for the night, by the way). And if there was any doubt ex-Chaka Khan backer Bruner didn’t already pass the test, he gave the drummer a dramatic fist-bump toward the end of the late set to signify his approval.
Perhaps as noteworthy as the musicians who played on stage Wednesday were those who didn’t: A couple of his backup singers were in the crowd and are expected to get up with him Thursday -- which almost certainly means Prince’s mic will be turned on, too. A limited number of standing-room-only tickets were sold last-minute at the door Wednesday, and more will likely be available Thursday. The Dakota's calendar is open without any performers' names all weekend, but no one seems certain what to make of that. After all, the dude does like to mess with us.