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Prince at the United Center more fizzle than sizzle

Prince’s concert Monday at the United Center didn’t really finish, it fizzled.

The singer spent two hours working his band and the nearly full house, including an encore, and then walked off stage with a smile and a wave. The lights stayed down, and crew members swept the stage. The crowd waited, and waited some more. After about 30 minutes, fans started filtering out. The lights finally came up, and the remaining fans booed. Then, nearly an hour later, Prince returned to play two more songs, according to some of the fans who stuck it out. By then, most of the arena had emptied.

It was a strangely anticlimactic ending to the first salvo in Prince’s three-night Chicago residency, which also included after-parties at the House of Blues after each United Center concert. Prince showed up at the House of Blues after the United Center show Monday but did not perform, according to numerous fans who attended. Though a concert was not advertised, Prince has performed in past years at such Chicago post-concert "parties."

In recent years, Prince has been pouring his energies into live performance rather than recording, and he prides himself on a no-two-shows-alike work ethic. On Monday, he set up in the center of the arena on a stage shaped like the Prince “love symbol” that became his signature in the ‘90s. His rhythm section was arrayed at the base of the stage, and an 11-piece horn section set up in back of the mixing board. Prince and his three backing singers roamed the stage walkways, and played to every corner of the arena.

Prince looked sharp in a black and white tuxedo-style outfit and sunglasses, and he orchestrated everything with the precision of chef serving a multi-course meal: the band, the lights, even the audience. He choreographed solos, drum fills, dance-offs and sing-alongs. The man knows pacing, and the first 50 minutes were like one continuous song, with an insistent Curtis Mayfield tune (“We’re a Winner”) rubbing shoulders with a sultry Aretha Franklin blues (“I Never Loved a Man [the Way I Love You]”). A snippet of James Brown melded with Prince’s rumbling “Housequake” and The Time’s “The Bird.” Only a drippy version of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” sung by the backing vocalists, exhausted the momentum.

Later, a sassy “Cream” with a preening Prince (“I wrote this song while I was looking at the mirror”) slid into a cover of Michael Jackson’s dancefloor-filler “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough.” It would prove to be the night’s high point.    

For most of the opening set, Prince deferred to and spotlighted his band, particularly protean drummer John Blackwell and vocalist Shelby Johnson. He struggled to integrate the horns into the sound – with 11 pieces, the brass section was a bit unwieldy for a free-flowing show such as this. Prince danced with dazzling grace and sang with potency, but just as often he extended the microphone toward the audience to finish choruses. His back-up singers often assumed lead roles; on “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Prince shared the microphone with Johnson.

At some point, you figured Prince would seize the show. But that moment never really arrived. He and his guitar appeared to be on the outs most of the night. The singer picked it up briefly during “Purple Rain” and teased the audience: “Can I play this thing?” Instead of a solo, he played a handful of notes and set the instrument back down. A saxophonist tried to pick up the slack, to no avail.

The encore was strange, too: Electronic versions of some of his biggest hits, mostly without the band. A full-on finale with Prince going nuts on the guitar seemed in order. But, instead he made everyone wait in the dark. When he finally did re-appear, fans who paid more than $100 to attend were in their cars, probably wondering what the heck happened to an evening that had started off with such promise.

greg@gregkot.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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