CHICAGO -- Forget the Afro. That was so last week.
Prince had a new look -- and a new band -- Monday night as he began his three-day Welcome 2 Chicago residency at the United Center.
First, the new look -- think Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil, a tuxedo suit that is half black (with tails) and half white (no tails). One black shoe, one white one. And his hair was thick and wavy, with a wide headband, suggesting the iconic look of Minneapolis visual artist Scott Seekins.
Some 33 years after he introduced his first band, Prince unveiled his largest band ever -- 20 pieces, including 11 horn players, three backup singers and two guitarists. The horns had some intricate, jazzy arrangements as they took off on a few instrumental excursions early in the two-hour set. That lent a classy sophistication to a program that mixed funk, pop and rock. But Prince undermined this impressively expansive musicality by getting all A-D-D, whipping off snippets of tune after tune into an evening that too often felt like a long medley orchestrated by a demanding conductor trying to test his musicians rather than treat his fans.
The star turns were few and far between -- and the Prince guitar solos even rarer. During a 12-minute encore rendition of "Purple Rain," Prince played only a 12-bar guitar solo, allowing a saxophonist to take the long, featured solo on which Prince usually soars on guitar. Throughout the night, he seldom even had a guitar in his hands.
In short, a concert that could have been a triumphant return to Chicago (he hadn't played here since 2004) turned into a great big tease -- both the arena show in front of nearly 20,000 and the 3 a.m. after-show for 1,000 at the House of Blues club.
The Welcome 2 Chicago engagement -- which Prince chose instead of an outdoor show in St. Paul -- is part of his sporadic Welcome 2 Tour, which has included extended residencies in New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, the Carolinas, the Netherlands and Australia since 2010. The Chicago shows are a benefit for Rebuild the Dream, a nonprofit organization addressing economic issues.
Highlights on Monday were "Cream," which rose to the top with a nasty groove, and "Cool," the Time classic on which Prince's band found a 1980s funkiness. The set included Prince-penned hits by the Time (three numbers), Sheila E (two) and Sinead O'Connor ("Nothing Compares 2 U," turned a duet with powerhouse backup vocalist Shelby J).
Shelby J received several moments in the spotlight, including a bluesy take on Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved Another Man," which segued out of Prince's musical shout-out to Chicago legend Curtis Mayfield. Prince also saluted his one-time rival Michael Jackson with a thick but funky reading of "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough."
Too bad Prince didn't get as worked up for the tunes he made famous.
The 54-year-old Minnesota icon seemed relaxed, happy and talkative, preaching about love, helping the needy and being real musicians playing real music (despite a long synth-driven medley late in the show). He even apologized for starting late. However, later, things turned strange if not downright rude.
After finishing the first encore, Prince exited and the arena stayed dark for 35 minutes, with the outline of the glyph-shaped stage still illuminated. Then the house lights went on and most of the fans exited. However, 50 minutes after leaving the stage, Prince emerged in an all-black outfit with his guitar to play full and satisfying versions of "Little Red Corvette" and "1999" to a few thousand stragglers.
Not only did he seem disrespectful at the house that Michael Jordan built but also later at the House of Blues.
The after-party, which officially started at midnight, featured Minneapolis DJ Dudley D spinning oldies by mostly Prince, Sly Stone and others. At 2 a.m., Prince stuck his head from out of the curtain onstage. An hour later, his new protege, Andy Allo, began a half-hour set backed by a truncated version of Prince's band (and without Prince). Offering a jazz-soul-folk style reminiscent of early Nelly Furtado, the 24-year-old Californian couldn't fill the room with her too-small but sweet voice. She essayed one funky song about being a people pleaser, not a midnight teaser.
Flip those words around to describe Prince on Monday. The impatient fans who paid $100 expected him to play after Allo. But at 3:45 a.m., Prince emerged and said, "I was ready to stay all night. The owner says we gotta go. It's up to them. I'm here. If they say 'Yes,' I'll stay. Peace."
Prince could have accepted responsibility for the tardiness. Someone should get him a watch or maybe Morris Day could hang around to tell him what time it is.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream