LOUISVILLE -- “You ready Kentucky?” Prince’s voice penetrated the splay of purple light and swirling fog that filled The Palace Theatre at Saturday’s 11 p.m. show.
“We’re gonna play nine hits in a row,” he shouted over the crowd’s roar, which erupted into a frenzy -- or might I suggest, a Prenzy -- as the opening riff of Let’s Go Crazy wafted throughout the auditorium before descending into a slow, funkified version of the tune.
Since Let’s Go Crazy is the opening track to both the album and the film Purple Rain, it was a fitting way to begin a show defined by sultry reiterations of classic hits spanning more than three decades of Prince’s career, with the occasional soulful cover as well as new material from 3RDEYEGIRL woven throughout the evening.
Prince fans throughout the region have been crushing hard on the Purple One since he announced the spontaneous concert eight days before the show, which is the first stop of his Hit & Run tour with the band 3RDEYEGIRL. Prince perfected this unique formula of touring last year in Europe, announcing surprise shows on short notice and adding more to meet demand. Originally scheduled for just one Saturday show, Prince’s Louisville shows swelled to four, this late night offering being the second of the batch. He plays two more times Sunday night.
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL followed Let’s Go Crazy with a string of crowd-pleasing favorites, including Take Me With U, U Got the Look, Funknroll, Controversy, 1999, Little Red Corvette, Nothing Compares 2 U and Kiss.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Prince does not simply scratch the audience's itch to hear tunes that may have defined their youth (the age of the crowd was mixed, but skewed a little older). He uses those familiar hooks to entice them deeper into the sinew of the music itself, namely with his and his band's staggering musicianship. Songs like U Got the Look are recognizable but all grown up, seasoned and deepened into sultry jams that might end with a primal scream. You think you know what Nothing Compares to U or Little Red Corvette sounds like, but you don’t know all that it could be until you hear Prince and his crew break it down.
Prince is unapologetically self-indulgent with long solos, relishing in improvised riffs on both guitar and keys. He insists on the same for his band, too, because despite the fact that everyone is there to see Prince, the brand and the concept, it’s really not all about him. This was one of my most surprising discoveries of the evening. On stage, it becomes clear that Prince thrives on collaboration, that being a leader and connector of other artists is likely more important now than whatever it means to be a celebrity.
He took a back seat several times Saturday night (into Sunday morning) to showcase his band, and I don’t just mean the obligatory solo with the requisite shout out of the band member’s name. He ceded the stage almost entirely to them on a couple of occasions late in the set. For example, Prince and the rest of the band snuck off the stage during one of the evening’s three encores so drummer and hometown girl Hannah Welton could crush a minutes-long solo. Earlier in the evening, Prince played keyboard while his backup singers took the spotlight for a stirring, soulful, heart-thumping cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s Thoughtful N’ Thankful.
“Are you thankful?” he shouted to the audience above the keyboards.
Prince was in continual dialogue with the audience throughout the evening, a thrilling hallmark of the Prince experience. It’s not so much that Prince just puts on a good show, or knows how to please an audience. It’s more like he puts them to work, conducting the crowd like a maestro. When Prince says sing, you sing. When Prince says clap in double time, you do. When he makes you spell out C-O-O-L with your hands, you spell. When Prince tells you to take out your phone -- which we had been told in no uncertain terms to keep in our pockets, and no photos -- you take out your phone. Under his direction, the audience is another collaborator in the evening’s energy, which is, as we were told in the curtain speech, a magic that cannot be captured with technology. Or maybe even words.