I’m an unabashed Prince fan and have been since I saw my first concert featuring the pint-sized genius. My parents, not having a clue who the guy was at the time, got me tickets to the Purple Rain tour for my ninth birthday and I haven’t looked back since. Somewhere along the way, I made a promise to myself that whatever His Royal Badness put out for consumption, I’d buy, especially if it was music. With this in mind, I went out and bought 21 Nights, a coffee table book of pictures taken during his recent stint in London over, you guessed it, 21 nights. I happened to read an interview with the Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince in USA Today last week, and my interest was piqued. Paraphrasing greatly, he said this book was going to give the first true documentation of his career, albeit a very slim portion of it. To be honest, I wouldn’t have really cared, as the real reason to buy it for me was the accompanying CD, Indigo Nights, made up of various tracks from the shows. Regardless, I was pumped, and using a variety of coupons and my discount card, I picked it up for 60 percent off the cover price, so I figured I was stylin’ on this one.
Sadly, this book doesn’t quite live up to the expectations I had (and being the major fan I am, my expectations were pretty wide open in the first place). First off, there is no “story” here at all. I was thinking there would be some biographical angle, but the only written words are lyrics from various songs. (As a side note, there was a time when I could name any Prince song if you read me just one line of lyrics. Damn, I didn’t recognize a quarter of these songs. And for a guy that’s seen every U.S. Prince tour since Purple Rain except one and owns every album, that’s saying something, and it ain’t something good.) While the pictures are gorgeous and lush, it seems like a whole lot of filler to me. Here’s the band. There’s Prince looking better-dressed trying to pick out his outfit for the day than I did on my wedding day. Quite frankly, it feels like a way overextended tour program. But hey, I didn’t buy this for the book, right? I bought if for the music, so everything else should just be gravy.
Here’s the thing I simply do not understand. I go to roughly 25-50 concerts a year and have for the past decade or so. I’ve seen everyone from Kenny Loggins to Big Daddy Kane, from to Broken Social Scene to Dolly Parton, and damn near every genre in-between. The case of the matter is NO ONE puts on a show quite like Prince. He’s got the tightest band, plays like a man possessed every time and, quite frankly, is just too damn funky for his own good. So why in Winnie-the-Pooh’s name can’t the man put out a decent live album? Sure, he’s done a few incredible live tracks on studio albums (“Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” ranks as one of the best live tracks I’ve ever heard by any artist), but full live albums don’t come close to capturing the man’s performance capabilities. One Nite Alone…Live was a letdown and I’m afraid Indigo Nights isn’t a whole hell of a lot better. Sure, the selection is far more interesting and quite a bit funkier, and there are a few new tracks here, but this one probably is for the die hards like myself. And this makes me sad.
Things kick off with “3121,” which intros with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and segues in and out of “DMSR”. For those of you keeping score, Prince has dropped all profanity from his shows since going Jehovah’s Witness, so the lyrics are altered slightly for “DMSR”. Things then pump into “Girls & Boys,” one of my all-time favorite deep purple concord jams, but this is not a great version. While having the audience sing parts of a song might be great for an actual live performance, hearing the crowd instead of the singer on CD seems kind of wasteful. Of all things, a nearly unrecognizable from the original “Song of the Heart” pops up next, followed by a decent “Delirious” and then a monologue bemoaning paparazzi and claiming Prince is just an average Joe Six Pack (c’mon, guy, who are we kidding here?) Next, The Purple One does start to hit his stride with a blues suite consisting of “Satisfied” and the new “Beggin’ Woman Blues”. Inconceivably, he seems to be about a half beat ahead of the band on the latter track. And then the true high points arrive in the likes of some of the funkiest jams you’re likely to hear this year. Interestingly enough, he turns over the vocal duties for a lot of the rest of the show, proving that his taste in throaty Sistah singers is uncannily amazing. “Rock Steady” could be the highpoint of the album, which turns into an instrumental version of Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love”. “Alphabet Street” makes an appearance before the titular track provides a damn spicy salsa beat. From there, it’s a bit of filler to my ears, though the “The One/The Question of U/Fallin'” suite is pretty damn impressive.
I’m not quite sure how to rectify that the best stuff here is not Prince material and often not even Prince singing, but what can you do? It’s undeniably funky in places, soulfully perfect in others, but still not something I think will energize the masses.
Do you still need to see this genius the next time he comes to town? Yes, even if you have to sell your comic book collection to do so. Should you be ashamed of yourself if you don’t have a copy of Sign O’ The Times? Not only should you be ashamed, you probably should start doing penance right now. Do you need to rush out and buy the book? Regretfully, probably not.