Can one man and a piano create an overwhelming experience?
The answer is a resounding affirmative when discussing the artist who will always be known as Prince. On March 4 at Oracle Arena, which has seen its share of thrilling performances over the past year, the electric singer-songwriter-performer transfixed a 20,000-plus capacity crowd with an unrelenting barrage of hits and show-stopping performances.
Much like a Stephen Curry 50-point outburst for the Golden State Warriors, which play in the same building, the numbers don’t translate the artistry and communal magic the man created.
This was the third Bay Area show in the past week of his “Piano and a Microphone” tour, which had brief stops in New Zealand and Australia last month. Earlier, Prince had held two private shows at his Minneapolis studio, but there have been no other North American performances.
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For more than 2 1/2 hours, Prince played parts of at least 37 songs, including 13 spread over three encores. The music ranged from a snippet of “Soft and Wet” from his first album – 1978’s “For You” – to several songs from his latest CD “Hit N Run Phase Two,” which attendees received as they left the arena.
The youthful, limber 57-year-old appeared clad in a muted purple tunic and matching pants with an oversized flowing beige vest. He also wore a thick gold chain, gold wedge shoes with sparkling lights in the heels, a bouffant halo Afro and carried a silver cane. He strolled to the piano on a raised platform in the center of the arena and leaned his cane there. Clusters of candles at the corners of the small stage gave the space a gothic, romantic mood, and over head video monitors offered close-up views of the artist.
The music often came in chunks of three or four songs strung together, as in an early segment when he placed “Little Red Corvette,” Dirty Mind,” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” in a stunning medley of varied tempos. Dramatic emotion hung on his almost casual yet virtuosic piano playing. There was an instrumental “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and he melded Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” with his own “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”
The set was designed for as much intimacy as one can hope in a basketball arena, but Prince generates a certain enthusiasm in his fans, which undermines that mood. He will never be a performer who has to ask the audience to make some noise. He controlled the crowd with signature smiles, smirks, and poses often standing at the piano while playing.
He moved through hits and favorites including “Controversy,” “I Would Die 4 U/Baby I’m A Star,” “Cream,” “Paisley Park,” “Purple Rain,” and “Raspberry Beret,” inviting chorus sing-alongs and hand clapping accompaniment.
The songs were naturally deconstructed, played solo at the piano with emphasis shifting to melodies, lyrics, and his incomparable voice, including his gripping falsetto. Often the audience stood and danced or rocked and swayed as the moods of the songs struck them.
Highlights among the hits were a goosebumps-inducing version of the lost-love gospel rave “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and a naturally funky set-closing version of “Kiss.”
After that he rode off on a bicycle down a tunnel and subsequently emerged for a the first of three encore sets, segueing from “Diamonds and Pearls” into a heart stopping “The Beautiful Ones.”
The performance would have made legendary piano men like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis proud as he kicked the piano chair back, reaching the song’s climax while on his knees nearly underneath the instrument.
Finishing a segment Prince told the crowd: “Would you offer me love? I’d love some.” The audience nearly levitated to applaud as he circled the stage, arms outstretched, accepting the unconditional embrace.