Prince was introduced to the world in 1978 as a one-man band with a giant Afro on the album “For You.”
On Thursday night, Prince finally made his debut as a live one-man band with a sizable Afro at Paisley Park in Chanhassen. It was the most revealing, intimate and personal show he’s ever given. Well, the first of two performances was. The second one was more relaxed, emotional and hits-filled. But first things first.
The man in mauve emerged enveloped in stage fog from behind giant doors (covered with his glyph) that parted in the middle. He climbed the stairs to a new small stage and sat at a purple baby-grand piano. He hit one chord on the keyboard and walked away.
The faux false start was intentional because Prince, at 57, was about to present a conceptual musical autobiography. He was a 3-year-old who wanted to play the piano but his dad, a musician, wouldn’t let him touch the instrument. So little Prince watched TV, which he indicated by jumping atop the purple piano and miming like he was munching chips while transfixed by the tube.
His parents divorced when he was 7, he said, and thereafter he could play piano anytime he wanted. So he offered a passage and then proclaimed, “I can’t play piano like my dad. How does Dad do that?” Then he whipped off a blues-jazz boogie segment and announced: “I wish I could sing.” The audience of 1,200 laughed.
Thus began Prince’s story, a tale during which he was playful, philosophical and uncharacteristically open. He talked about listening to the radio — naming his favorite Twin Cities DJs — and eventually wanting to write his own songs. He demonstrated how he would vamp on the piano, attempting to craft a tune, and even showed some wrong notes he tried in the composing process.
After that illuminating prelude, he finally launched into something of a chronological tour of his career. He delivered his first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and confessed that he was trying to figure out who he was and created the Rabelaisian “Dirty Mind” and the provocative “Do Me Baby,” but in these solo piano renditions they sounded merely like love letters to make her melt.
Unlike similar shows in which big-name stars expound on what sparked certain songs, Prince was more interested in discussing his motivations and inspirations in general, not in specific. In the middle of “Free,” he stopped and gave a shout out to David Bowie, saying what a nice guy Bowie was when they met once. Then Prince resumed the song.
He also sang the praises of Joni Mitchell and played an intoxicating version of her “A Case of You,” which included an aside that showed how the space between notes makes a difference. Prince aimed to be instructive as well as insightful and entertaining. And he was in terrific voice all evening, with masterful command of the piano.
Maybe the best story was the introduction to “Raspberry Beret,” one of the few hits heard in the 90-minute first concert. He talked about how a teenage Lisa Coleman almost flunked her audition to be his keyboardist and eventually became so essential, contributing, among other things, a musical line around which “Raspberry Beret” was built.
Prince didn’t talk about church or religion but there was an abundance of gospel and spirituality in his singing and playing. Not only is it natural for him but it seemed fitting in this format because this stripped-down music exposed his inner soul more than anything he’s done before.
“This is a first,” he said at show’s end. “You were here and so was I.” And then he disappeared amid stage fog.
Despite the dearth of hits, the show has to rank as one of the extraordinary oddities of Prince’s concert career, along with his one-off bar-band evening at the defunct Rupert’s Nightclub in 1990 and his three nights, with a different band each night, at the Dakota Jazz Club in 2013.
Thursday’s second show lasted only 78 minutes but featured less talking and more hits, including “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Purple Rain” (during which he almost cried). The highlight was “Kiss” (he goofily ad-libbed about not having to watch “Duck Dynasty”), which was the perfect foreplay for the ensuing “Black Sweat,” the funkiest foray of the entire romantic evening.
The second concert was probably what fans — who came from Japan, Switzerland, England and all over the United States — might have expected from a solo piano gig by Prince. Last fall, he announced his Piano and a Microphone Tour of Europe but it was canceled after the terrorist attacks in Paris. If Thursday was a preview of a possible solo tour of the States or Europe, hardcore fans will be delighted to discover a new side of Prince.