Prince has been generous to Montreal over the past decade and-a-half — and he has been crafty: stunning fans with an improv-laden opening set before delivering the hits post-intermission in his 2001 Montreal International Jazz Festival appearance at Place des Arts’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier; and going deep into the jams in a pair of last-minute, midnight shows at Metropolis, again at the jazz fest, in 2011. In between times, he has gone big, and traditional, playing the Bell Centre.
Monday night, at Place des Arts’s smaller Théâtre Maisonneuve, he got intimate. Alone, with the advertised “piano and a microphone,” he played to back-to-back sellout crowds of 1,400 faithful who had forked over $100 to $300 a ticket for a unique opportunity to be part of the inner circle of a rock-funk-soul legend for a few hours.
He first pulled the stunt with a pair of shows at his Paisley Park home studio, in January. This was Montreal’s chance to see what the fuss was about. And when Prince is in town, there’s always a fuss.
First off, about that piano and a microphone — the piano was of the 2.0 variety, meaning it packed samples and effects to enhance his sound when he felt it necessary, but never so much as to make it feel cheap. The man is a pro, through and through, and he knows when his songs need a little extra oomph.
That said, the primary bringer of oomph was the diminutive, infinitely talented genius with the gold-brown, bell-bottomed tracksuit, cane and gold chain who walked out with a trademark strut, just past 7:30, and kept the crowd enrapt for the duration of his nearly two-hour performance.
He sat alone, centre stage, against a continuous array of psychedelic, kaleidoscopic visuals on the big screen behind him.
Prince may no longer rule the charts like he once did, but he never fails to dazzle in the live setting, overflowing with charisma, creativity and explosive technical proficiency. On this night, he did so via slippery reimaginings of songs from throughout his repertoire.
Following a bruised, breezy cover of Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You, Controversy came through as a stompin’, crowd-assisted singalong. I Would Die 4 U was heartswellingly anthemic.
Little Red Corvette, mischievously stripped to its bare essentials, was highlighted as a shrewd metaphor for fast times and heartbreak — with a little sass thrown in for good measure: After the line, “Baby, have you got enough gas?” he retorted, “Are you kidding?”
The guy knows how to work a crowd. He requested the house lights be brought up for Rasberry Beret, and kneaded the groove on Paisley Park. He took a brief curtain call before returning with a lesson in funk, courtesy of his father:
“Funk is about space,” he instructed, snapping his fingers and taking stabs at the piano in a lurching rendition of How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?
“I ain’t scared of nobody!” he shouted, to no one in particular, halfway through — in case it wasn’t obvious.
A swirling Diamonds and Pearls, gravity-defying Purple Rain and rabidly bluesy Kiss would arrive in turn, before the set was through.
It was a show like none Prince has given before in this city, and he’ll surely change it all up the next time he comes through. Of course, we’ll rush out to see him all over again, because he always comes through; and when royalty visits, respect is due.