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By Barry Michael Cooper | Posted 4/25/2001

Prince, Millenia, The Fonky Baldheads

Lyric Opera House, April 18


Watching the polymath currently known as a Prince Rogers Nelson lay a match to the stage of the Lyric Opera House and burn the joint down, I was reminded of how much I missed calling him by his given name. Not trying to figure out some symbol or calling him TAFKAP or the Self-Imposed Mute With the Word "Slave" Written Across His Face. Although I understand what that was all about too: He was at war with a company trying to suck his creative blood from him, and he wasn't feeling that. So he took it to the stage of the people, the Internet, using it to announce shows, sell CDs and merchandise, etc. Bravo.

Seeing Prince as just . . . Prince, well, there's nothing like it. Seeing him at a place as intimate as the Lyric is a rare treat. He's older (42) and wiser, and his April 18 show showed not only the quantity and quality of his body of work--which is incomparable--but also the variety.

When he opened his set--preceded by the talented female quartet Millenia (his background singers) and the impressive rap-rock funkateering of the Fonky Baldheads--with James Brown's "Doing It to Death," the crowd of 3,500 may have thought it was gonna be a night at the Apollo or the Royal. The Godfather of Soul motif was driven home with Prince's splits and spins and rendition of the Horse (or, as Prince said, "I'm getting ready to do the Funky Four Corners, y'all"). Jazz-fusion saxophonist Najee played the role of Maceo Parker. A star in his own right (and resplendent in a gleaming white single-breasted suit, which Prince praised with, "Ain't this brother clean tonight?!"), Najee assisted in the effortless transitioning between Prince's personal epochs: the rock-funk of "Little Red Corvette" and "Controversy"; the glam- slam-tronica of "1999" and "When Doves Cry"; the Philly-soul melodramas of "Nothing Compares 2U" and "The Beautiful Ones." Judging by the way Prince delivers his visceral falsetto, I've always believed that the latter song, from the Purple Rain soundtrack, was written about some heartbreak in particular.

The only shadow cast on the night's luminescence was the audio; at times, one of the stage-right speakers sounded thunderingly fuzzy. Whatever. We were caught up in the moment, and Prince kept turning the clock back with three encores. He's even scaled down his almost comedic, satyrlike posturing of years past. Not to say he didn't indulge his audience-star-foreplay trademark of licking the palm of his hand. But now, it was all about role-reversal. When his triple-jointed dancer Fatima reclined in a chair and spread her legs wide, Prince sauntered over to her. Yeah, baby! But he faked us out, walking toward the front of the stage with a mischievous smile on his face, as if to ask, "Who's the dirty mind now, huh?"

No, this was not the Prince of the bacchanal; this was the Prince of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, beautifully illustrated by the vast makeup of the audience. Black, white, straight, gay, Gen-X and Yers sitting next to baby boomers, all singing that ol' '80s classic--"Purple rain, Purple rain . . . I only want 2 see U/ in the Purple rain." I watched people crying, clapping, raising their hands as if at a revival meeting, as Prince told everyone in the audience, "You need to crack open the Bible and meet Jesus, the son of God." By the time he thanked us and said good night, I was just a face in a most grateful crowd, wishing that the greatest show I had ever seen would never end.

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