From early in his career, Detroit has been a hotbed of Prince support. It was one of the first cities to embrace the musical genius, with legendary DJ The Electrifying Mojo playing a big part in that from the early days through Prince's ascent into super stardom. There is a reason Prince opened the Purple Rain Tour here and the city responded by selling out seven straight shows. There is a reason he celebrated his birthday here in 1986 with two shows no less. At the height of his popularity he referred to the city as his "second home" thanks to all the love he received from this area.
That mutual love continued throughout the ups and downs of his career, as he continued to play here regularly, even selling out four arena shows on his hugely successful Musicology Tour of 2004. But then something strange happened. Years passed and Prince never returned. In fact, the years piled up to nearly eleven without a Prince show in Detroit. His last show here was on July 31, 2004, with a show on the West side of the state in Grand Rapids a day later. It just seemed odd. Something wasn't right in the universe. Then it happened. After two nights, and four shows in Louisville, Kentucky in March, Prince fans were wondering what the next lucky city to be graced with Prince's new Hit 'N' Run 2015 Tour would be. On Good Friday, word started spreading via social media that Prince was returning to Detroit with his band 3rdEyeGirl, for a show at an unspecified venue on April 9th and Live Nation promptly confirmed it.
Live Nation's involvement led to a lot of speculation the show would take place at The Fillmore in Detroit since they run that facility. That was certainly my guess, given its similarity to the venue Prince played in Louisville. But literally minutes before tickets went on sale at Noon on Monday, April 6th, the venue was revealed and it was instead the Fox Theatre. My stress over getting tickets was slightly lessened as the Fox has about twice the capacity of The Fillmore. But given this area's thirst for a Prince show, I knew this was still going to sell out nearly instantly and that it did, making it the hottest concert ticket we'll likely see in Detroit in 2015.
Since his 1988 Lovesexy Tour, I have only missed two Prince shows in Detroit. Given the length of time since his last show here, I knew this was bound to be a special night, a "reunion" if you will, and desperately wanted to be there to see it. I was prepared for a stressful experience trying to nab tickets as soon as they went on sale, but instead as soon as the online on-sale started, two main floor seats appeared in my cart and within minutes, I had two of the most in demand concert tickets in the city. It couldn't have gone easier and I spent the rest of the week leading up to the show grateful at how lucky I was to have scored these tickets. It seriously felt like winning the lottery, especially when I saw so many local fans online lamenting how they were shut out.
Even better, there wasn't long to wait and Thursday came quickly. With doors scheduled to open at 7 and opening act Judith Hill slated to start at 8, we got downtown around 6:30 and the line around the Fox was already incredibly long. Prince has adopted a ticket policy where you have to have the credit card you purchased tickets with swiped at the venue to gain admission. It's a great way to reduce scalping and make sure real fans get the tickets, but the downside is it can cause quite a wait to get into the venue. Things certainly didn't go smoothly on this night as the Fox's computers went down for about 25 minutes. Combine that with a late soundcheck and the 7PM door time was out the window.
When we finally got inside, more chaos ensued. At the table we were sent to for my card to be swiped, the two older women in charge of said swiping seemed to have less than a solid grasp of how to work the machines. Many people were being turned away and told they had to leave the building and go back outside to the box office to resolve their issue as their cards either weren't scanning or were not the cards they had on file for the ticket purchase. I was told the same thing, but was not about to leave and luckily there was a younger gentleman right by us that took my card, swiped it once and we were in. Crisis averted.
As we got to our seats and waited for opener Judith Hill to take the stage, it became apparent how serious staffers at the Fox were taking Prince's no photos/videos allowed policy. They were hunting down anyone with a phone out, giving them one warning that they had to be put away, and this was before the opening act even started! I even caught their wrath while texting a friend, told no phones were allowed and to put it away. I was not about to risk getting tossed out of a $150 seat and the phone stayed in my pocket the rest of the night.
Things finally got underway when the three women who make up 3rdEyeGirl came to the stage to let the crowd know they were in for an amazing night of music and also to reiterate the no taking pictures or videos policy. With that out of the way Judith Hill's set started with her band walking down the middle aisle of the Fox while singing the chorus to "As Trains Go By", the first song on Hill's Prince produced debut album Back In Time. Once they hit the stage, they were joined by Hill and kicked into the full song. After a couple rehearsal performances at Paisley Park, this was Hill's first official live set since teaming up with Prince and she served as a perfect opening act. Eight songs from her album were played, in the same order they appear on record, with a cover of Blackstreet's "No Diggity" in the middle of the set sung by keyboardist, and former Prince band member, Chance Howard.
Howard isn't the only former Prince band member in Hill's band. Kirk Johnson was on drums and Kip Blackshire was on keyboards as well. And the four NPG Horn members who played with Hill, also performed during Prince's set. The set was heavy on the funkier material on Back In Time, with "My People", "Turn Up" and "Wild Tonight" personal favorites. Of the slower material, "Angel In The Dark" was taken to a whole different level live, much more organic than the heavily electronic version on the album. Hill was in fantastic voice, and with a highly funky band behind her, here is hoping she embarks on a tour of some smaller venues as a headliner. I'd definitely be in the house if she returns to Detroit on her own. As I said, she was a perfect fit to open for Prince and her nearly 42 minute set was well received by the appreciative Detroit audience.
Now the anticipation for Prince was palpable. As jazzy music looped continuously over the PA the long wait to see Prince in Detroit again finally started around 9:45 as a brand new pre-recorded intro started once the lights went down. This reminded me of the introduction to his Nude Tour shows in 1990 as it opened with the beginning of "For You", which quickly slowed to a crawl into the beginning of "1999", which segued into the intro to "Let's Go Crazy". But then instead of false starts into a few more hits, a new track is played, as best as I can tell called "Million Dollar Show". This is a duet with a female singer who starts with "Welcome 2 the million, million dollar show. This is something that U've never seen B4. Welcome 2 the million, million dollar show. This the kind of music make U lose control", before Prince takes over on vocals. Obviously I am not sure if this was specially recorded for the show intro or a full length song in itself, but time will tell.
Hannah Ford-Welton started beating the intro to the 3rdEyeGirl "reloaded" version of "Let's Go Crazy" and it was on. Prince shouted out to the Detroit faithful, "Detroit! It seems like only yesterday. They tell me it's been eleven years. Well...if that's the case, we're gonna play 17 hits in a row! Until I see tears." And hits he did play, one after the other they came with an early show run of "Take Me With U, "Raspberry Beret" and "U Got The Look" whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
It was apparent from the start Prince was in a great mood. All night long he was leading the fans in chants and claps, asking for the house lights to be brought up so he could see everyone and showing love for the city and its support. And the love being thrown back at him from the Detroit crowd helped take the show to a higher level. One of my favorite segments of the show was next, starting with "Musicology" as the four NPG Horns, Marcus Anderson, Keith Anderson, Joey Rayfield and Lynn Grissett joined the stage. These four added so much whenever they were on stage, a force of funk. Also worth nothing, the three female backing singers led by the powerhouse that is Liv Warfield. Saeeda Wright and Ashley Jayy completed the trio and as "Musicology" segued into a cover of "Mama Feelgood", Wright took center stage.
This segment continued when Prince went to his keyboard/sampler for a run that included hits like "When Doves Cry", "Sign o The Times" and "I Would Die 4 U" as well as fan favorites "Hot Thing" and "Housequake". The band and horns joined in during most of these songs and this was by far the funkiest portion of the show. By the time they went into "Cool", written by Prince for The Time, I had danced myself into a sweaty mess. It also would not be a Prince show without numerous call-outs to the sound men to fix something he wasn't happy with, from turning up vocals and his guitar to his shouting, "Turn up the horns, what's wrong with you???" during "Cool". After this song ended Prince declared what we already knew, boasting, "We're the best! And so are you Detroit!"
After a brief break the show was back on with covers of "Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" and "Play That Funky Music", with Prince giving examples of funk from the 70's and 80's that led into his own "Controversy". This brought about a particularly humorous part of the night. During "Controversy", Prince requested, "Take your cell phones out Detroit. Take your cell phones out, turn 'em on. When I give the cue Detroit, I want you to wave 'em from side to side. Light this place up!" So of course people did but then used this as an excuse, despite the strict no pictures/videos policy, to light the place up with phones snapping pictures and taking video all through the next ten minutes or so until security had restored order. Someone who is so protective of his image may want to rethink this request next time.
The hit parade didn't let up with "1999" and the crowd favorite "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore", which especially had the ladies in attendance screaming and Prince showed his falsetto is still top notch. A slowed down "Little Red Corvette" was followed by a beautifully arranged "Nothing Compares 2 U". Prince then took the opportunity for his most heartfelt sentiment of the night and the hope for another show in the near future in a larger venue. "Detroit! Detroit! You've always been so good to me Detroit. Turn me up in the house now! Detroit, that's what I'm talking about. You've got a beautiful city and beautiful people. Please take care of it for me so I can come back. Will you do that for me? Next time I'll go to The Palace. When that other Prince get outta there, you know what I'm talking about. Tayshaun and them."
Prince then displayed his sly sense of humor declaring, "I wish we could stay a little longer but we've run out of hits. Nope, I think that's it. We're up to.. who was counting, we at twenty? Say what? Are you talking to me? No, no, no, no we ain't got no..." and then came the unmistakable guitar intro to "Kiss" which closed out the main set, with the Purple Yoda dancing so much, it was easy to think we were back in 1986 for a minute.
Since we hadn't heard "Purple Rain" it was obvious the show was not over but the start of the first encore was a pleasant surprise as "Clouds" was played, very similar to how it was performed on Saturday Night Live last year. This was the only song from the two new albums released last year played on this night and it was pretty obvious most in the crowd sadly didn't know it. Another segment of funky covers followed with Sly's "Thankful N' Thoughtful" leading into the first live performance of Laura Mvula's "Green Garden" which brought Judith Hill back to the stage. Prince's guitar playing during this song was especially on point, a very cool addition to the set which had him saying afterwards, "I had to get that out of my system." Things then closed with the always welcome "She's Always In My Hair" and of course, "Purple Rain" which had Prince asking at the end, "Did we do this? Did we really do this? Thank you Detroit, we love you."
At this point I wasn't sure what to expect. "Purple Rain" would be an obvious closer for a normal 90 minute set, but with no late show the hope was Prince and the band were returning. There was a near nine minute wait while the crowd clapped, chanted and screamed for more and return they finally did. Prince asked, "Can't you see I put my pajamas on? I thought y'all were gone!" before kicking into a second encore of funk starting with "Act of God" that ran through covers like "What Have You Done For Me Lately?", "Dancing Machine" and "It's Alright" as well as touching on Prince's own "Partyman" and the NPG's "Northside".
So was that it? There were about 20 minutes left until midnight when the show had to presumably end but after much clapping, chanting and shouting from the Detroit crazies, out they came again for a third encore, starting with a brief piano set of "Diamonds & Pearls" and "The Beautiful Ones" before Prince went into his notorious Sampler Set. He started by teasing "Darling Nikki" before asking the crowd, "Detroit, are you CRAZY??!!??" This is my least favorite portion of Prince's current show but it is funny to watch people in the audience go nuts when he starts songs like "A Love Bizarre" or "Pop Life" only to move on quickly to something else. I thought things were finally coming to an end around midnight when during "A Love Bizarre" Prince said, "Detroit they say we gotta get outta here. I wanna see your face one more time. Detroit we love you!" but he then proceeded to blow off any potential midnight curfew.
The highlight of this set however came during the final sampled song, The Time's "777-9311" when Prince grabbed the bass and started throwing down on the song's famous bass line. To get to witness this live was worth the price of admission alone. The full band then returned to close the night out with a gorgeous version of "The Love We Make". I can't think of a more fitting way to close out this show than with Prince singing, "The only love there is, is the love we make" as the whole night was a celebration of Detroit's love for this legendary artist, his amazing career of hits and innovative music and Prince returning that love with a two and a half hour marathon of showmanship.
"Thank you Detroit. From The New Power Generation, 3rdEyeGirl and Judith Hill, we love you. My name is Prince. Good night." Those were the final words spoken from the stage this night. We still hung around, not quite sure after what had just been witnessed if he might sneak back out one more time, but this was truly the end. I have been very critical of Prince doing these "greatest hits" shows for awhile now. Yes, the diehard fan in me would love to see a set filled with more rarities and I have been lucky to see a number of such shows during the course of Prince's career. But for his first show in Detroit in nearly eleven years, Prince played it perfectly. He had to deliver the hits and in doing so in the fashion he did, he kicked the asses of everyone in attendance. I have to imagine it gets tiresome for even him to play some of these songs so often, but with the energy and exuberance he brought to the stage you'd never know it. There is still nothing like a Prince show and this one served as a substantial reminder of why he is the greatest musician I'll witness in my lifetime.