Review: Prince live at Koko
Mon 17th Feb 2014 , Yellow Advertiser
I had resigned myself to missing Prince's Hit'n'Run Tour. The rock legend has been popping up all over London for the past few weeks, sometimes announcing gigs with just a few hours' notice and charging as little as £10 per ticket. The mysterious nature of the shows has attracted widespread attention. It is a novel approach in a live music world now almost completely controlled by ticket touts.
‘Pop-up’ gigs are one of the many tactics employed by the star, who famously despises internet ticket companies, to keep things 'old school'. Ticket touts cannot sell his tickets to the highest bidder because there are no tickets; the only way to get in is to pay as you walk through the door. Promoters can't hold back tickets to sell on at inflated prices because there are no promoters. It's like going to see James Brown at the Apollo in 1965: you join the line, buy a ticket and enjoy the show. Like Brown, Prince is also routinely playing multiple shows per night to cope with massive demand.
Such tactics aren't always an option, of course. Forcing crowds to line up and pay on door wouldn't have gone down well in 2007, when Prince played 21 nights at the then newly-opened 20,000-seat O2 arena. In that case he flipped the bird at ticket companies by charging the incredibly low price of £31.21 a seat. At a 21-night Los Angeles residency a few years later he made an allocation of tickets for every show available for $25 (roughly £15).
Prince's recent gigs at venues including the Electric Ballroom, King's Place and the Shepherd's Bush Empire have made him the talk of the town, generating more column inches in the UK than he has enjoyed for years. The Twitter hashtag #PrinceWatch has trended repeatedly and the constant rumours have provided great excitement for fans who either live or work in central London or seemingly have no jobs or responsibilities.
But the constant uncertainty has been less amusing for those of us who, having not seen him since those 21 Greenwich gigs seven years ago, live and work far away enough that by the time the venues are announced we have no prospect of getting there and getting in.
Sod's law dictated that when he finally did announce a weekend London gig in advance – at Koko, Camden, on Sunday, February 16 – I had pre-existing plans in Richmond that could not be cancelled. I'd likely be free by the time he took the stage, but not soon enough to join the queue and get in.
Sitting on the train from Richmond to Waterloo at 9pm on Sunday, feeling morose about the fact that Prince was performing a short train ride away but I couldn't go, my phone rang. It was my friend Sam.
So many fans had queued outside Koko that Prince was playing a second show, he told me. He was roughly number 900 in the line; the venue held 1,400 people and he thought there were only 100-200 people behind him. If I got there quickly, he said, I should get in. I pulled into Waterloo and debated whether to head left for the underground to Camden or right for my train home. My head told me it was too good to be true, I'd never get in. My heart won the battle. I hopped on the Northern Line to Mornington Crescent.
As I arrived security guards were already letting people in. The line snaked around the corner and about a three or four-minute walk up an adjacent residential street. I passed Sam, who wished me luck, then walked past what seemed like an endless line of people now behind him in the queue. Almost immediately we began moving slowly towards the corner on the horizon. Queue-jumpers seemed to be materialising all over the place, joining friends who were further down the line. I kicked myself for not just standing with Sam and knew it would be touch-and-go as to whether I got in.
As we rounded the corner I contemplated the heart-crushing prospect of being just a few spaces behind the cut-off mark. To my immense relief and amazement, security waved me through, I paid on the door, walked down some steps and found myself on the ground level of Koko, behind the mixing desk. In the centre of the stage was a microphone with a giant Prince symbol attached to the stand. Unbelievably, I was in – having queued for little more than a quarter of an hour. I was stuck at the back, my view largely obstructed by a pillar – but I was in, nonetheless.
Roughly 10 minutes later Prince took to the dimly-lit stage, his spherical afro glimmering in the blue of the stage lights. Kicking off with a rumbling, down-tempo re-imagining of 1984 hit Let's Go Crazy, he appeared to have hardly aged since its release. Wearing a white turtle-neck, he was a dead ringer for his Purple Rain-era self.
While 2007's arena shows, with horn-heavy super group the New Power Generation, showcased Prince as the consummate showman and bandleader in the James Brown tradition, it was clear this small club gig was intended as a more intimate experience in every sense. The set list appeared designed as much for Prince's amusement as for the fans'. He followed Let's Go Crazy with Endorphinemachine, from 1995 album The Gold Experience, then 1985 B-side She's Always In My Hair. Backed by new trio 3rd Eye Girl, Prince delivered a heavy rock set broken up by quieter moments at his piano, cloaked in darkness.
That's not to say the night was light on hits. Far from it. At one point he segued from lesser-known piano ballad The Love We Make, from 1996 album Emancipation, into a barnstorming rendition of Purple Rain track Take Me With You, followed by 1985 hit Raspberry Beret.
A regular segment at both small and large scale gigs, referred to by fans as the 'sampler set', sent the Camden crowd wild. Playing samples from an electronic dashboard, Prince – on piano – and the band provoked a frenzy as they riffed over some of his biggest hits.
He led the crowd on a deafening sing-along of When Doves Cry, followed by pounding instrumental of 1982 track Nasty Girl (by Prince-produced girl group Vanity Six) and then 1987's Sign O The Times.
Teasing the crowd with snippets of tracks like Sheila E collaboration A Love Bizarre and 1995 number one The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, he crowed: “How many hits we got? We'll be here all night!” Other sampler set highlights included I Would Die 4 U, Pop Life and 1987 club smash Housequake.
Tackling his third instrument of the night, he finished the sampler set with 777-9311 – a funky track by side project The Time – moving across the stage and picking up a bass. What followed was a battle between Prince, playing a virtuoso slap bass solo, and saxophonist Marcus Anderson who popped up intermittently.
He ended the first of five encores – which included a collaboration with London-based soul singer Lianne La Havas and a sultry re-imagining of Something In The Water from the album 1999 – with a piano rendition of signature anthem Purple Rain. While the performance prompted at least one female fan in my line of sight to burst into tears, his decision to deny the crowd – some of whom had queued for the best part of eight hours – the legendary guitar solo did seem a peculiar way to reward their dedication.
That said, the night was littered with majestic guitar solos, highlights being 2009 tracks Dreamer and Crimson & Clover, as well as new number Screwdriver, which features a recurring guitar lick so quintessentially rock & roll that it's hard to believe you've never heard it before.
Prince also let loose on 1979 heavy rock track Bambi, in which he pleads hopelessly for a second chance with an ex-girlfriend who left him and turned lesbian, and a rocky cover of Wild Cherry's Play That Funky Music.
“Thank you for supporting real music by real musicians,” he told the crowd, as he and the band repeatedly returned to the stage to quell their screams for more.
Following the fourth encore the house lights went up and after about 10 minutes of inactivity I made the schoolboy error of leaving the venue – only to discover moments later that Prince had returned to the stage to play my all-time favourite piano ballad How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore, followed by 1987 track U Got The Look (mashed up with James Brown's I Can't Stand It).
The same thing happened the second time I saw Prince at the O2; I left after the lights went up and the 20,000-strong crowd began filing out – only for Prince to re-emerge and play two more songs. That time I managed to leg it back inside. This time, sadly, it was not to be. As a fan-friend later reminded me: “Never leave a Prince gig until security physically drags you outside.”
With no tickets, and having been urged not to take pictures or videos of the performance, after leaving the two-and-a-half hour gig it was almost as though it had never happened. I'd left my house more than 12 hours previously, with no expectation that I would return home having seen the world's greatest performer live in a venue less than a tenth of the size he's capable of selling out 20 times over. Had it all just been a surreal dream?
Prince told a press conference upon his arrival in the UK that he would stay until people stopped coming. He's off to Manchester this weekend, after which nobody knows whether he'll return to London or not. If he does, here's hoping for some more weekend gigs - with enough notice to get into the capital and inside the venues. If not, I can rest assured that I have witnessed a music great at the top of his game.
According to my friend and fellow Prince fan Casey Rain, who saw Prince a week earlier at Shepherd's Bush, Prince's Hit'n'Run dates look set to go down in history.
He told me: “He's really going for it. I've seen him quite a few times and I get the feeling that on this tour, something or someone has got him gassed up and he wants to make a point. These aren't your typical reviews from fans who were simply happy to be there. These shows are getting put at the tops of lists of people who've seen him dozens and even hundreds of times, when all the other shows at the top of those lists are from the mid-90s at the absolute latest. It's just amazing.”
Indeed it was.
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