I've made it no secret I am not a big fan of Prince's most recent tours. The whole series of 'Welcome 2' dates have been amongst the least exciting of his career. Oh, I am sure if you are there they are still highly entertaining, but if you've followed Prince through most of his career, it's obvious dude is in full-on coast mode. Despite that, I was anxious to hear the recordings from his May travels Down Under on his Welcome 2 Australia tour. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, it wasn't long before shows were easily obtainable and FT Records has covered the Sydney leg of the tour with their "Welcome 2 Sydney" releases.
So let's start with Night One, recorded May 11, 2012 at the Allphones Arena. Before I get into the show itself, it has to be said the quality of the recording is wonderful. Even though this was recorded from the audience, Prince's vocals are amazingly clear and the mix on the music is of high quality as well. I'd give the overall recording a B+, if anything the occasional audience member overheard adds to the experience of 'being there' while listening. There are times I enjoy these high quality audience recordings as much as a soundboard as they just give you the feeling of what it would have been like to be in attendance. High marks to those responsible for recording the first two nights in Sydney.
Opening with an acoustic guitar performance of "Purple Rain" by special guest Andy McKee, the first segment of the show is nothing short of a mess. Normally I'd get excited to see "Gold" in the setlist, and it is nice to hear, but this is a pretty tame version, no guitar solo but a lot of calls for the audience to sing along. From there, things deteriorate into one of those long medleys of a bunch of songs you'd prefer to hear played completely or not played at all. I know Prince has a gazillion songs to play, I do not envy his task of coming up with a setlist that pleases everyone, it is IMPOSSIBLE. But I'd much rather hear "Jam Of The Year" in complete form then have it lead into a disjointed portion of "$" from "Lotusflow3r" before that suddenly turns into the truly cheesy "Song Of The Heart".
Things don't get much better with "Let's Go Crazy" mixed with "Delirious". These are truly the worst live versions of these two songs Prince has ever performed. They sound like some awful renditions a Vegas cover act would play, complete travesties both of them. Maybe Prince has to pay some karmic debt for these putrid arrangements as his guitar completely fails him when it comes time for the famous guitar solo in "Let's Go Crazy". Let that be a lesson to you Prince, these songs deserve better treatment than these tossed off show-tune versions.
Somewhat surprisingly, the show starts to pick up with "1999". Yes, we've heard this song performed a ton of times, but at least this is a mostly complete version and puts an end to the silly medleys. Prince's guitar is still failing him for "Little Red Corvette", and I'm sure someone had hell to pay for that, but it makes for a unique performance as he has to fill the time usually spent on guitar improvising vocally. The new, slowed down, bluesy arrangement of this classic continues to be a highlight of Prince's recent shows. The other real highlight of the first half captured on Disc One is the over twelve minute version of The Time's "Cool" with some of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" mixed in. Old school funk at it's finest. A lovely version of "Sometimes It Snows In April", with Andy McKee on guitar, closes out the first disc.
The second half of the show, and Disc Two of this set, starts with some rarities. An over eight minute version of "Love...Thy Will Be Done" is a pleasant surprise, even though Prince screws up a few of the lyrics. His stage banter on this tour is equal parts funny and strange. During this song, Prince explains how music has the power to unite then throws out the question "What other reason would we be here tonight? Free pizza?" HUH??? The highlight of the night follows as Prince and the NPG start things off with "Mountains" which already has the drum pattern from "The Dance Electric" running underneath it. The song then segues right into a nine minute version of "The Dance Electric" and it is fantastic that Prince has pulled this song out to perform again. This is among my favorite tracks Prince gave away back in the 80's, in this case to old friend Andre Cymone.
"Somebody slap your neighbor and tell 'em how many hits Prince got" he boasts as the introduction to the Sampler Set portion of the show. I'm really torn on this whole segment. I hate the medleys, I hate him playing backing tracks on a sampler, but it is actually fun to hear some of these tracks with him singing live over them, especially "Hot Thing". It is hilarious though to hear Prince say "Y'all hear that funk? This cannot be reproduced by a band, because I am that band", when the 1987 Sign 'o' The Times band seemed to have no problem performing this live.
The night starts to come to a close with some of Prince's biggest hits starting with "Kiss". An epic 25 minute version of "Purple Rain" may sound cool, but it is a bit too much given the near nine minute instrumental opening. The always funky "Controversy" closes the main set with another of the night's funny moments as drummer John Blackwell starts the song off tapping on a cowbell way off beat and too slow It almost sounds like he is doing the opening tempo to "Cream". He catches on but Prince doesn't miss a thing as he tells him, "Just leave it John, you're already docked!" before chuckling. The band eventually makes it back out for one last song, the rocking "Peach".
The first night of this tour had its technical problems and the band still needed to work out some kinks to be sure. I actually do like the musicians in Prince's band. Blackwell is a fantastic drummer, I adore Ida Nielsen on bass and Cassandra O'Neal and longtime NPG member Morris Hayes hold things down on piano and keys. But this current version of the NPG is the difference between Prince having a real BAND behind him and a group of hired musicians. And there is no need for me to continue emphasizing how much I dislike the trio of backing singers. This is a fairly enjoyable listen, but it's still hard for me to get past the whole Vegas act feel of Prince's concerts these days. I will say the Australian Tour was an upgrade over the previous Welcome 2 gigs, with the inclusion of some rarer material, but these shows are one and done listens for me.